Monthly Archives: November 2011
Directed by: Ryan Nicholson
Starring: Alastair Gamble, Mihola Terzic, Nathan Wittle
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
As fans of horror, maybe you can tell me, when is it safe to say that in attempts to shock, filmmakers have gone too far? Now a big part of my youth was spent hunting out video nasties, but bizarre as it may seem, they look very tame opposed to some of the efforts to be gratuitous that we get now.
I turned thirty this year and maybe it’s just that I’m a bit of an old fashioned kind of guy. I even think that modern music takes the level of profanity far too high. I mean, as adults we all have sex, we all know swear words, we all can drink and if we really, REALLY wanted to, we could probably all get hold of a bag of drugs. Does it excite you to hear songs about this? How does it make you feel? Is it really necessary? Personally I think it’s more creative to be restrained, but as I said, I must be somewhat out of touch.
I know that it is a strange thing to say, but cultural transgression and a much looser level of acceptance, has given old-skool slashers a kind of innocence about them. I guess that you could compare it to the way that the fifties era of rock and roll now looks laughably lame,but at the time was pretty controversial. Despite it’s efforts to reference its retro roots as you can see in most of the artwork, Gutterballs goes all out to take things to a new level of explicitness.
A verbal and physical fight between two gangs results in the sadistic rape of a young girl. The following night at the bowling rink, a masked killer locks everyone inside and begins to slaughter them one by one.
* I tried to edit out the language as much as possible, but I couldn’t post without one ‘F’ so be warned -
Judging by his age, director Ryan Nicholson would have experienced and enjoyed the outstanding achievements of Canada’s entries to the slasher genre under producers such as John Dunning and Peter Simpson and directors including William Fruet and Paul Lynch. He began his career as a make-up artist and special effects technician for TV shows like the X Files and Stargate before he took his talents to the silver screen for major budgeted pictures, which include Final Destination. His success has allowed him to be the major force in Canada based studio, Plotdigger films. His first feature length movie, Live Feed – a torture porn gore fest in the vein of Hostel – gave him the springboard to produce more of his ideas and Gutterballs is the result of years of hard work.
The movie has a nice look and a very retro feel in the way it makes the most of its eighties setting. The bootleg that I watched for this review has a great soundtrack, which was never licensed for the final cut that is widely available, due to the obvious high costs involved. Nicholson makes good use of the location and the methods of murder are themed to involve all that you can imagine from bowling appliances. One girl is killed by having her throat sliced by the laces of a pair of the specialised shoes, whilst another has his entire face ‘burned off’ by a ball waxing machine (see above). There’s also a highly amusing ’69 suffocation’, where a chick is choked by her partner’s (prosthetic) penis and the guy is smothered to death by…well, you get the idea. The director has said that he doesn’t believe in cutting away and his vision of horror is to make it as graphic as possible. In its unrated print, Gutterballs definitely delivers on the gore score and you will never feel cheated by a lack of ambition from the effects.
The killer’s disguise is immense and the mystery aspect is handled with enough suspects to keep you guessing and I liked the choice for the maniac’s identity. The pace stays high from start to finish and there’s even a macabre calling card as the body count is notched up on the computerised score board – a skull and crossbones for each victim.
If this had been released during the period that it references, it would have been banned in most countries and therefore would have become a cult classic. I can imagine it being the kind of film that my buddies and I would have uncovered on a cruddy VHS and bunked off of school to sit down and watch – repeatedly. But while trying its hardest to be the baddest of the bunch, it comes across as too excessive and lacks class and charm. The director has been very vocal in his defence of the extremely graphic rape sequence, which sees a girl violated by a bowling pin after being brutally penetrated by three guys. He has admitted that it was tough to shoot, but he did it to get a reaction from the audience, even if it be one of immense disgust. It’s certainly an uncomfortable scene to watch, but even after the appalling nature of the event, it’s almost impossible to feel sympathy for any of these characters as they are a collection of personalities without one redeeming feature between them.
There’s no excuse for rape and no one deserves it, but after an intro that takes ludicrous sexual profanity to a level perhaps unseen in cinema previously, it’s impossible to pick anyone to care about. The film is heinously scripted to the extent that it looks to have no vocabulary other than swear words and in some scenes we get five or six actors shouting over each other at the same time. Every second word is a vile cuss and by the fifth time of hearing c**t or d**k it had exactly the wrong kind of effect. I may have thought that Gutterballs was cool when I was a rebellious fourteen year-old, but as an adult it just looked ignorant and devoid of intelligence.
It’s not just the language that is taken to the outer limits. When it comes to nudity, we get a close up shot of a shaved vagina and countless prosthetic penises. Most of the murders have a sexual angle, including one guy getting his eyes gauged out and then his corpse discovered with used condoms in his eye sockets. The ‘included just for a reason to be homophobic’ transvestite gets his genitals cut in half in loving close up and one guy is violently sodomised with a sharp instrument.
If any or all of the above takes your fancy then Gutterballs will fulfil your wildest cinematic desires and if that’s the case it has achieved exactly what the director had intended. But me, I definitely prefer the less is more approach and thought this was too distasteful for its own good. It’s sleazy for sure, but in a way that lacks sympathy for the results of its actions and that’s the biggest missing ingredient that it needed to make it effective. I agree with director Ryan Nicholson that gore is in itself a form of art, but to be artistic you need to be aware of parameters and this slasher has none that I noticed.
A tribute to the eighties peak this may be, but even the worst of them had more style than this. I may be harsh as the director seems like an intelligent enough guy to realise that pushing it beyond the limits was always going to upset some and therefore he must have expected this type of reaction. I do however have to call it as I see it and what I saw I didn’t enjoy as much as I should have
Final Girl √
Terror on Alcatraz 1986
Directed by:Philip Marcus
Starring: Aldo Ray, Sandy Brooke, Victoria Porche Ali
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Now the slasher genre is often mocked for its lack of authenticity, but check out the synopsis of this underplayed entry from 1986 for a tad of originality -
Remember the Clint Eastwood film Escape From Alcatraz, which portrayed the story of Frank Morris, the only prisoner that ever managed to break off of that notorious island? Well this is in effect a continuation of what he got up to if he had survived and carried on with his criminal activity outside of a concrete cell…
Now the Alcatraz escape of 1962 is a topic of much interest across the world and recent files have been released from the FBI that suggest that a raft was found on the island opposite with footprints leading away to freedom. A car was also hijacked that same night. Did they go on to build new lives under false identities? Well if they did, they certainly left behind a great story and I guess that we will never know for sure.
If the film versions of the jail-breaking legend offer a realistic account of his true persona, then Frank Morris seems to have changed in character a bit since we last saw him on the screen. These days, he is a bit of a woman-beating sadist who, in a really mean-spirited scene, puts a cigarette out on his girlfriend’s breast. We learn that he needs to return to Alcatraz to find a map that leads to a key to a bank vault that will solve his financial woes. Instead of breaking in at night, he heads over on a boat with a group of youngsters and disappears in to the corridors whilst they are given a guided tour. Six of the kids (supposed to be teens, but they’re older than me) decide to spend the night in the jail for a cell block party, but little do they know that the psychotic Morris has found a meat cleaver and has murder on his mind…
Now I agree that the above narrative seems to be as far away from a typical slasher as you could possibly imagine, but it does, in fact have more in common with the genre template than A Nightmare on Elm Street or Child’s Play. Once stranded on the island, the killer stalks the victims in traditional fashion and kills using the devices that we have seen many times before. Almost every murder is gory and the effects are surprisingly good. The actors make the deaths more cheesy by the over the top-ness of their dramatics. One girl flinches a hand long after she had been drowned, whilst another guy whines like he is being tickled when he has a machete four-inches deep in his cranium. The director makes good enough use of the awesome prison location and listening to the guide prattle on about its history was actually quite interesting.
Now there are really two threads to the plot, which shows ambition from the screenwriter. One involves the slasher killings and the other concentrates on Morris’ plans for the heist. The thing is, they don’t really flow side by side and Aldo Ray comes across like two different personalities depending on what scene. He manages to be a charming rouge in some parts , but evil and as I mentioned earlier, sadistic, in others. It’s a bit of a strange tone because we should really be rooting for one of the victims, but the most intriguing personality is most definitely the bogeyman antagonist. We never really care too much about the cannon fodder and it’s hard to put a finger on why. They’re not your typical slasher movie clichés and each has a strong personality. There’s an overweight coke head, an Alcatraz obsessive who knows more about the prison’s history than the tour guide and a Native American, whose portrayal could be considered a tad offensive. He is a bit of an idiot and blames the ‘white man’ for everything, but dresses up in army paint in order to have a showdown with the loon and is one of the easiest to be murdered. It was a kind of clumsy way to handle his characterisation for me. There is a final girl, but it could have been anyone to be honest. No one particularly stood out as a player that we wanted to survive. They’re also all pretty shallow and leave one of their number to die without even trying to help him, which takes away any audience sympathy that they may have gained.
The acting is ok-ish from the youngsters and Aldo Ray is just plain Aldo Ray. Now that’s not a bad thing, as he is blessed with a screen presence that means characters become him, not that he becomes characters. This is not a method actor that we are talking about; much like Clint Eastwood, he is the same in everything that we watch, it’s just that watching him is so damn fun. The best performance for me was from Sandy Brooke, who is a bit of a slasher heavyweight having been in both Sledgehammer and Bits and Pieces. She may not be an awesome actress but she was really good as the lovesick gangster’s mole. Totally believable and stole every scene that she appeared in.
Despite a great location and an experienced lead, Terror on Alcatraz is a lower than low budget feature. The photography is quite grainy and the amusing pan-pipe-esque score is very cheap. Oh and check out the electric keyboard Halloween rip-off over the opening credits. It also can’t help but feel amateur especially with the pedestrian direction and nonsensical script. As I said earlier, the two plot lines don’t really match and this is most evident when the killer falls off an Alcatraz cliff in to the freezing water below, but emerges in the next scene, fully clothed, unscathed and back on the San Francisco shore ready to raid his fortune. He never mentions once back in the city the eight or so victims he slaughtered and if it wasn’t for the same lead character, you’d think it was two different flicks. In reality, Frank Morris was closer to Einstein than he was Al Capone. The guy had an IQ of 133, which is touching on genius. The thing is, the script makes him come across as a bit of a mindless thug and despite his numerous spells in the slammer, he was everything but that. It’s worth noting the curve-ball ending, which is bizarre, but extremely un-expected. I’d love to hear a screenwriter commentary and how he would explain some of these plot ‘twists’ away, but the fact that this is not on DVD by now, means that it probably never will be.
It drags a lot in places and it’s too jumbled to be great, but I quite enjoyed Terror in Alcatraz and it is a different slasher offering. Aldo Ray carries most of it on his shoulders, but it is definitely not the worst. Recommended if you like them cheap and gorily cheerful…
Final Girl √
aka Scared Alive aka Island of Blood
Directed by: Bill Naud
Starring: Marie-Alise Recasner, Rick Dean, Bari Suber
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
This peak period slasher was one of the first that I got my grubby little hands on when I was a nipper and the store keeper at my local video rental shop was more than happy to part ways with it in exchange for a shiny £1 coin. Even back in those days it didn’t make much of an impression on me, but I was keen to give it another look with an adult mind as I notice that my opinions have changed a lot over the years.
Interestingly enough, it managed to escape the wrath of the BBFC and doesn’t look to have been castrated at all in the UK. There’s one quick cut when someone’s about to be murdered, but unless this was snipped by the MPAA before it was submitted here, then it seems to be the full print. It’s also very hard to tell by the jumps in the runtime if they’re deliberate or not, because like most of the film’s technical aspects, the editing in the movie is quite poor.
The story’s basically an update of And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. In the opening, a girl is seen relaxing by a pool. There’s a noise in the bushes and all of a sudden, she is shot in the face and her lifeless body sinks to the bottom. Next up, we meet a group of young actors who have headed off to a secluded island to shoot a comedy. Almost immediately, they realise that they are stranded and an unseen someone begins killing them off one by one.
Whodunit has its own Facebook page, where one person wrote that it’s an underrated gem. Now me, I’m all for uncovering diamonds in the rough and posting them here so that you guys can have the joys of hunting them out. Unfortunately in the case of Bill Naud’s dreary slasher, I would suggest that it’s best left where it currently lies.
On paper the idea is very good. The killer is murdering people as per the words of a peculiar song and he leaves a calling card of a portable cassette player that loops the lyrics that associate with the method of slaughter that he has used. The song in question is a punk rock oddity, which repeats, ‘Burn me, Burn me face to face’ to the point of insanity. The burn part is substituted dependent on how the victim is despatched; for example, ‘Stab me’ or ‘Boil me’. The only problem is that once we have heard it for the fiftieth time, it does begin to tear at the strings of your patience. By the roll of the closing credits (accompanied of course by the track in full), it was a case of ‘please, no more!’
The soundtrack however is only the beginning of the issues that make the film difficult to watch. There’s a humongous body count and some imaginative kill scenes, but the lighting is so bad that we never really enjoy any of them. The score is certainly not the worst and the mystery is pretty good, but any attempts at suspense are wasted by a lack of a clear sight on what the hell is going on. This makes the feature feel more tedious than it really is; and the pace never raises high enough to keep a roving eye transfixed.
As was the case with Freeway Maniac, the movie includes an average actress satirically playing the part of an actress that’s even worse. Yes it is a tad ironic, but purely self-recognition from a screenwriter who was aware that this was a lunch-money budgeted production and poked a bit of fun at it. Whodunit is authentic in the fact that that same girl, who plays the heroine, is not the shy sensitive type like Laurie Strode and I think that the only reason that she survives so long is because she was the prettiest cast member that they had. Aside from the fact that that she looks good in a bikini, I just can’t think of any other reason that she made it through to the conclusion. We get a smart twist that is really quite impressive, but it’s poorly executed and turns out to be a bit of a mess.
Aside from the Facebook page that I mentioned earlier, I have never seen a good word written about Whodunit. Of course, there’s nothing I like better than defending a heavily criticised slasher flick, especially when it is a rare one from the key period. But in the case of this feature, I have to say that I agree with the masses. It’s far too jumbled to be any good and even the unexpected pay-off is flawed because of the holes in the script. Just who was that girl murdered in the opening credits? Why on earth was she never referred to again? What the hell was going on with the red herring guy’s haircut?
The plot touched on real estate agents buying up land against the wishes of locals and I thought that it was a really good idea for a motive, but it was never followed through or developed. It can’t help but feel like there actually was only a brief idea of a synopsis and the screenwriter made up the scenes as he went along, which would explain the craters that pop up time and again throughout.
Early in the feature there’s a very good scene that raised my hopes immediately. A girl heads off to explore the basement, but in the shadows lurks an assailant in one of the best killer guises that I’ve ever seen. He stalks up in steadicam, but it turns out to be a false scare. That costume is never seen again (boo) and things just continue downhill and we never come close to any shocks or tension.
Released under three separate aliases, this one is not a gem of any kind and will even disappoint genre enthusiasts. Avoid…
Final Girl √√
Directed by: Howard Avedis
Starring: Bill Paxton, Christopher and Lynda Day George, David Wallace, Mary McDonough
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
You know nowadays when you walk in to a newsagent or petrol station and see a box on the counter that says DVDs £4.99? Well back in the late eighties there used to be bargain buckets of VHS where you now find those budget discs. I was always a fan of horror flicks and I remember that in one such place, I found One Dark Night and Embalmed at an affordable pocket-money price. Both had equally as gratuitous zombie box art, but upon watching them later, I discovered that only one of them had any actual zombies in it. Embalmed must have lost some friends and made some enemies before the introduction of the Internet, because it has arguably the most misleading cover artwork ever. Just look at that picture. I mean jeez…
Now this flick has already got a reputation for being somewhat campy and there’s a (very good) review on Hysteria Lives, which outlines all its cheesy parts (it has many), but so as not to bore you with the same comments, I decided to go in with an open mind and give you the low down on its other ‘strengths’
Since her father died (murdered in the opening by an unseen assailant with a baseball bat), Christie has been suffering from nightmares and she has been sleepwalking. It doesn’t help that a masked loon in a cape is after her every night too. Is she really as deluded as her mother makes out or is there a killer stalking her?
If you have a glass in your hand, you may want to put it down before I say this. Embalmed actually manages to be extremely good in places and has moments that are just downright creepy. It’s blessed with a neat score and although maybe a tad too dark, the scenes inside Christie’s house are suspenseful and foreboding. It’s hard to find this movie in its totally uncut format, but one or two of the murders are very taut and the heartbeat on the soundtrack keeps the tension at a compulsive level. There’s a very good stalking sequence where Avedis makes great use of the killer’s heavy breath and the embalming pipe is an authentic tool for gooey murder.
The performances interchange from campy to pretty decent constantly throughout. I thought that David Wallace was solid and Lynda Day George carried two identities very well. She came across as both suspicious when necessary and then charming much later and boy was she packing a bod in that negligee. I didn’t rate Mary McDonough (formerly known as squeaky clean Erin from the Waltons) too highly and felt that she overreacted at times when she should have just played it straight, but Christopher George was at his grisly best in his final cinematic outing. It’s Bill Paxton that steals the show in this early role, taking the part to the borders of normality and then breaking them down with his eagerness to steal the limelight. He did very well with what he was given and added life to a bemusing script and it was exactly what the film needed.
In fact it’s the screenplay that is the film’s main blunder and the key reason as to why it’s become regarded as silly and not worthy to share a place amongst its more sinister counterparts. The dialogue is totally off the wall and although this can be highly amusing in places, it takes some of the impact away from the times that the flick could have been really scary. After a fairly good build up and the creation of an unsettling atmosphere, the final scene takes all that had been good and completely ruins it. I was really enjoying the momentum as the killer sat all the corpses in chairs like the identical set-up from Happy Birthday to Me, but then the last five minutes are a lesson in how not to end a feature and for me, completely destroy it from a scare-factor standpoint.
There’s a subplot involving the mortician and his taste for black masses that edges on a supernatural sheen, but never really drives it anywhere and I wondered if that was due to the loss of interest from producers prior to filming? Now I have been told – and by a pretty good source – that this was originally intended to have a very big budget and that there’s a lot of scenes (including some more blood) that never made the final print. Now whether this will ever see light of day is another matter, but I wondered if the black masses were part of another branch of the story? Now this doesn’t feel like a half-finished feature and there’s no gaping holes that I recall, but I always imagine myself as a screenwriter and if I keep reading over and over what I’ve written, I would almost definitely only include big scenes if they had a purpose. There is a pay off for the seance stuff, but it doesn’t seem like a very good one. The problem that we have with Embalmed is that it’s not very popular, so no one has really bothered to look too deep in to the stories behind its making. The fact that it is not on DVD means that any chance of getting our questions answered is still a long way off. Perhaps we never will.
I guess in a way that Embalmed can be whatever you want it to be. For some its a cheese three-course meal that is extremely funny, others say that it drags too much in the hands of its characters, whilst for me I thought it was quite creepy and I rather enjoyed it. Director Howard Avedis would return to the cycle with They’re Playing with Fire, which was a tad more nonsensical than this.
One more thing, I was not one of those that picked this up expecting a zombie gore flick and was totally disappointed (I am sure many of you were). I was always in to slashers and the living dead were always second best, so I actually got a nice surprise. But just look at that cover again. Nowadays, people would sue…
Final Girl √√
Eyes of a Stranger 1981
Directed by: Ken Wiederhorn
Starring: Lauren Tewes, Jennifer Jason Leigh, John DiSanti
Luisito Joaquín González
I am interested, of the two most important horror ingredients, which one do you prefer? Are you a fan of gruesome gore or teeth-clenching suspense? Let’s put it another way. If you went to the local multiplex and were in the mood for a bit of terror and there were two choices showing: – In screen one a gratuitous Grindhouse slaughter-thon. In screen two a taut suspense marathon. Which would you buy a ticket for? It’s a good question, right?
Now I love seeing someone get an axe in the face as much as the next man (on screen of course), but I think I’m more amazed by watching a true craftsman manipulate timing and framing to make me bite my nails than I am watching someone spill pig’s intestines everywhere in close-up. Eyes of a Stranger is an interesting case, because its synopsis hints at the formula of suspense classics like Rear Window, Someone’s Watching Me or When a Stranger Calls, but it has gore effects by Tom Savini. Could this be one of the extremely few horror films that delivers on both counts…?
There’s a maniac terrorising Miami and committing gruesome rapes and murders. Jane Harris, an ambitious reporter, becomes involved when she begins to suspect a creepy neighbour that lives directly opposite. She has always felt responsible for what happened to her younger sister who was attacked and as a result lost her hearing, sight and the ability to speak. Can she find the evidence to stop the creepy killer?
Unlike in my country of birth, a sunny day in the UK is very hard to come by. Earlier this year, we woke up and looked out the window and the sun was scorching at 8am. We packed up our bucket and spade, I put on a T-shirt and a pair of shorts and we jumped on the train to Bournemouth. Halfway through the trip, I started to feel a little cold and suddenly a big ominous cloud appeared in the sky. As soon as we arrived, Señor sol had disappeared and it started to hammer down with rain. To cut a short story even shorter we ended up on the next train home. So what had started as a glorious adventure, ended up being a water-drenched nightmare and my Bermuda trunks have never recovered.
Eyes of a Stranger is a very similar experience to the one that I just mentioned, as in it kicks off exceptionally well, but then the clear blue sky turns a bit grey and the sun never manages to break back through. I will only ever post a review of an uncut movie as censor intervention can have a massive effect on the final result of a feature (Cherry Falls anybody?). Well Tom Savini’s inclusion here was pretty pointless as aside from one standout sequence, there’s nothing notable from his work. Certainly no blame can be put on his shoulders, but you’d think that any producer willing to fund his presence on set must’ve had the motivation to make the most of his capabilities. Stranger doesn’t really give him enough to work with. There’s some decent stuff here, but too many of the killings are off screen.
The first featured murder is superb and mixes jump scares, tight framing, brutality and some pretty good gore. One guy gets decapitated with a cleaver and his head chucked in a fish tank (check that hand twitching) and then the female is attacked by the masked menace (you can see it uncut above). This was a pretty terrifying opening and we were expecting some more of the same. Funnily enough, after the introduction of the final girl, the slide to mediocrity began.
There are three things that ruin Eyes of a Stranger. Firstly, the script gives too much time to the psychopath and he doesn’t get characterised as well as say, in a movie like Maniac. There are no real shots of him behaving like a loon and instead we just see him sitting down to have his dinner and with all due respect to John DiSanti, he just doesn’t ooze scariness. He’s certainly no bad actor, but he has a kind of everyday bloke-ness about him and for me, he just doesn’t cut it as a bogeyman. The synopsis would have been wiser to take the Somebody’s Watching Me route of keeping the assailant in the shadows. But in its ambition not to feel like a rip-off (which it is), it deliberately breaks the most important rule: Don’t give your monster too much screen time.
Next up we have our final girl (or in effect we are given two of them). Again there’s nothing here that would suggest that Lauren Tewes couldn’t handle the part, but the story portrays her character as foolish and annoying rather than victimised and brave. Instead of unintentionally crossing paths with the maniac, she invites him to stalk her by being plain stupid. She’s a victim due to her own actions and not for any other reason. Jennifer Jason Leigh on the other hand gives a good enough Laurie Strode impression, albeit a blind, deaf and mute one. The only thing that I didn’t like was the fact that she had to flash her breasts. It just felt pointless and took away some of her innocence – final girls just shouldn’t do that.
Lastly, the movie has some serious problems with its pacing. It’s hard to put a finger on why it can’t sustain its momentum, but once it starts to drag, it never really picks itself back up. If ever there was a fine chance to build suspense, it was in the apartment scene. Jane thinks that she knows who the killer is, so she breaks in to his flat and begins searching for some proof. Meanwhile he is downstairs waiting for the lift. Can she get out in time or will he catch her in his wardrobe? You couldn’t dream of a better route to create some tension, but director Ken Wiederhorn doesn’t manage to make anything of the situation. If he fails to excite in a scenario like that, you can be sure that it’s not going to get any better. There’s the old slasher trademark of two randy youngsters in a car parked up in the wrong place at the wrong time. The build up is good, the gore effects are neat (the second best of the feature), but the shot feels rushed and there’s no real shocks.
I liked the pretty decent score and even if this is by no means the best of Tom Savini, it is Tom Savini all the same. Jennifer Jason Leigh put up a good battle with the killer and the cat and mouse chase in the apartment between them was pretty intense. It was particularly mean spirited the way that he was mocking her disabilities and tormenting her by moving items around in front of her. I am struggling to think of any other positives. Well… it’s nicely acted and it looks professional. It’s also another of those slasher/thriller features of which there were plenty of back then (Eyes of Laura Mars, Dressed to Kill) and… umm … well did I mention Tom Savini?
I really wanted to like Eyes of a Stranger, because it’s the one peak-period slasher that I had never got round to watching until now. I wouldn’t have been so disappointed if it was just plain bad, but the problem is that it showed glimpses of genius, but never made the most of them. I gave it two stars because well… I would pick this over the majority of new-skool slashers, but as a time-capsule from the overkill years, it’s not one of the strongest.
Final Girl √√
The Scaremaker 1982
aka Girls Nite Out aka Creando El Terror
Directed by Robert Deubel
Starring:Hal Holbrook, Julia Montgomery, James Carroll
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
This entry can best be described as the Ray Parlour of the slasher genre. If you think that sounds strange or don’t know who Ray Parlour is, then allow me to explain. He was a football (soccer) player. Or more specifically, a hard working midfielder for Arsenal who never really got the recognition that he deserved. It was only after he was allowed to leave and then hung up his boots that his contribution was really noted. Looking back now, it’s easy to see that the Romford Pele was an energetic cog in the midfield engine room, who wasn’t flash or trendy and that probably contributed towards why he never reached superstar status. He was recently voted as one of the most underrated players of all time, so now, post playing days, people think of him more fondly than they had when he was in the midst of his career.
The Scaremaker is a similar case as in it doesn’t have gore effects by Tom Savini, it doesn’t boast a soon to be superstar in its cast and it wasn’t banned or tortured by censors upon release. What it does offer however is a slick stalk and slash adventure with a few sublime touches.
In the opening, we discover that Dickie Cavanaugh, a lunatic who killed a college co-ed during the annual scavenger hunt is found dead in his room in an asylum. When his corpse is about to be buried, he seems to come alive and escape in to the night, killing the two orderlies on route. He returns to the same college of his previous crime, where as if by fate, they are preparing for the same yearly celebration. After a big party, a killer in the basketball team’s mascot bear suit begins to stalk the location and makes creepy calls to the campus disc jockey. Can they decipher his clues in time to prevent him from killing any more students?
In many ways, The Scaremaker is coincidentally similar toSmall Town Massacrein the fact that it attempts to be somewhat retro in its approach. Whereas Michael Laughlin’s slasher works hard to provide a small town in peril vibe to its synopsis, this has a very good soundtrack of sixties music that must have cost the producers a small fortune to licence. It’s a really neat touch to hear the likes of The Lovin’ Spoonful playing in the background of a stalk and slash flick and it illustrates the strength that a yesteryear ambience can play in a film project and it definitely separates this from the multitude.
Key to the plot is the campy DJ who brings to mind Wolfman Jack from George Lucas’ American Graffiti. The only difference is that the guy spinning the tunes here is laughably cheesy in that he sports a fluorescent cap and Village People-like moustache whereas Wolfman was the epitome of cool; but it’s an interesting ingredient all the same. There’s also a wonderfully amusing fancy dress party scene, which again references the nostalgia of the sixties with its theme. I was hoping that we’d get another dancing sequence like the infamous Lightening Strikes piece, but unfortunately they didn’t go that far this time around.
The killer wears a hilarious bear mascot costume and uses a bladed glove a la Freddy Krueger, but this was made at least two years earlier so it’s authentic in that it was the first American entry that I can recall to use such a murderous device. Now this is an out and out slasher film and never tries to be anything other, but unlike the multitude of its category brethren it doesn’t steal directly from either Halloween or Friday the 13th. I certainly didn’t notice any real cut and pasted scenes and I guess the only major flick that this could be considered as being close to would be Prom Night, but again there’s nothing concrete to support any accusations of imitation.
When the psychopath strikes, the killings are impressively grim and eerie and the image of the big cuddly bear on a murderous rampage is one that manages to be disturbing and cheesy at the same time. He attacks his victims whilst mouthing obscenities such as, ‘Slut!”’ and ‘Whore!’ and it sets a really sleazy tone. There’s not much in terms of gore effects, but they at least had the budget for some suspiciously tomato-soup looking blood that is thrown over the corpses as they are stabbed. There are a couple of notable aftermath shots that show the bodies in a gruesome state, which make up for the lack of any truly graphic special effects. Director Robert Deubel has a fair few cracks at jump scares and there are a couple of neat moments of suspense. I liked the parts inside the gymnasium and locker room and the whole feature is blessed with energetic and lush cinematography from Joe Rivers. During the parts when the track list takes a break from sixties hits and the tone switches away from the shenanigans of the youngsters (they were supposed to be teens, but as usual in these flicks are closer to their mid-thirties), the terror is neatly scored and the feature has good pacing and just about gets the mix of moods spot on.
The cast of mostly unknowns do a very good job here and there’s no obvious signs of dramatic weakness. They all get a chance to shine during the interrogation scenes, which I thought were a neat addition. The only recognised actor, Hal Holbrook, looks to be the one who isn’t particularly motivated and it seems as if he is speaking his few lines over Skype rather than rising to the occasion. He only spent one day with the director and it’s easy to see by what he offers here that he wasn’t deeply involved or interested. He plays a rugged part that would have been perfect for Christopher George and at least George would have given his usual ham-feast delivery, which Holbrook never really captures. He was also involved in the only really weak part of the script during the unmasking, which is easy to tell was filmed with the two actors on different sets at different times. There’s no cohesion in their verbal sparring and then the film ends a tad too suddenly for my liking. It’s also somewhat strange that the story lacks a real central character and even though there is a possible final girl (she’s the most morally superior and the maniac even passes up the chance to kill her), she isn’t the synopsis’ focus. The personas that get most of the screen time are her cheating boyfriend and his bit on the side. You would think that they would get their comeuppance in the usual fashion for their misdemeanors, but the rapid conclusion means that we never know for sure if they survived? If I had to guess, I’d say that they were killed, but can’t be sure.
I have seen some negative reviews of this flick posted on other sites, but I enjoyed it – I mean, I can’t see what it is that people don’t like? It’s never tedious, the characters are fun, the tracks are outstanding, the killer costume is great and you’ll never guess who it is that’s murdering the teens. This was made in 1981, completed in ’82 and stayed on the shelves until 1984 and although I don’t have precise box office information on its performance, I doubt it recouped the amounts that were splashed on the soundtrack, let alone made a profit. That may explain the off-the-wall trailer that has a girl in it that doesn’t appear in the movie. You can see it above – I’m sure you’ll agree it’s a slice of the highest pedigree of WTF? Yes this is no world beater but I think it deserves a larger following than it has. I prefer this to Prom Night for example in terms of slasher thrills and atmosphere.
Give this one a shot if you haven’t bothered with it. It’s deserving of your time.
Final Girl √√
The Initiation 1984
Directed by: Larry Stewart
Starring: Daphne Zuniga, Clu Gulager, Vera Miles
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Although it’s fantastic for avid collectors like me that the slasher genre was so heavily populated during its two lengthy runs in both the early eighties and late nineties, it perhaps made it harder for some titles to achieve the recognition that they deserved. Whilst it’s generally acknowledged that Friday the 13th and the Halloween series were the most memorable genre outings from the overkill period of the eighties, many of their cousins from that time were deserving of further recognition.
The likes of My Bloody Valentine, Happy Birthday to Me, Prom Night, The Prowler and Intruder are often mentioned as the ‘second-tier’ of the category and have achieved cult status and a legacy in their own right. Unfortunately that means movies such as Hell Night, Maniac, Just Before Dawn and Madman have been somewhat unfairly overlooked.
If judged solely on its merits as a motion picture, then The Initiation doesn’t even sit amongst the latter titles that I mentioned above. It does however boast an undeniably alluring sheen, which is impossible to ignore. Sure, it’s cheesy as hell; but it nicely paced, slickly produced, atmospheric and has its share of decent moments. It’s not a view that is shared by everybody, but personally I like the movie and think it’s somewhat under-valued.
Kelly Fairchild is a pledge at her local college and as the new term draws near, she learns that she has to participate in the annual prank-filled Initiation in order to earn the respect of her senior sorority sisters. This year the youngster and three of her friends have been tasked with stealing the uniform of the security guard that patrols the local mall after hours. Fortunately for the youngsters, the shopping centre is owned by Kelly’s father, Dwight, who is somewhat of a local entrepreneur. Unbeknownst to the group, they have picked a time when a recently escaped lunatic is also hiding in the dimly lighted complex and before long the youngsters are being stalked and systematically slaughtered by an unseen assassin.
There are two key reasons why Halloween is widely regarded as the best and the most respectable of all the early eighties genre entries. Firstly, John Carpenter is an extremely talented director and a maestro of suspense generation. Secondly and perhaps most importantly, his movie was made purely with the inspiration to do something different whereas the motivation behind titles like The Initiation was simply to cash in on the stalk and slash craze that had swept the early part of the decade. Things move quickly in cinema and the fact that a quick profit was all that most producers were looking for from the genre meant that film-makers were never given the time to indulge in their cinematic visions.
There’s no hiding the fact that money was the key factor behind the production of TV director Larry Stewart’s one and only motion picture, but in fairness he looks to have been given the space and freedom to create the movie as he had initially intended, which means that we the audience benefit from an entry that never feels rush-released.
Cinematically, The Initiation is a film of two halves and starts rather flatly with nothing to note from Stewart’s pedestrian direction. It’s only when the victims are locked in the mall with the maniac killer that he gets the chance to flex his creative muscle and delivers some taut suspense and engaging set pieces. Stewart has a ball with the spacious locations and cat and mouse suspense during the second half of the runtime and the movie becomes an explosive cocktail of slasher clichés and pacey scenarios.
The cast remain cheesy throughout, but do enough to allow the audience to warm to them. All eyes are on Daphne Zuniga in her first real film role (if you ignore her brief cameo as ‘the girl that gets gruesomely squished by a car’ in The Dorm that Dripped Blood), but she does precious little to separate herself from the rest of the junior hopefuls. It’s the impressive script that really steals the limelight here and very few can honestly admit that they expected the Scooby-Doo twist conclusion.
Yes, it could be argued that the movie is a remake of another successful early eighties slasher, which I can’t mention without ruining the crux of the plot. That’s hardly a bad thing however and The Initiation has just about enough in its locker to succeed on its own merits. Blood hounds may be disappointed with the lack of any extreme gore, but those looking for a fun slice of slasher hokum will get their fill here.
All in all, I liked the Initiation. It is a reminder of all that was good about early-eighties splatter flicks and unlike many of its genre cousins, it also packs a double fisted punch to your ocular senses. The acting is hilariously campy and there’s no real gore to mention, but the good points, such as the impressively strong pacing, just about outweigh the bad.
If you’ve seen all the others and are in dire need for a slasher fix, then you should certainly give this one a go.
Final Girl √√√
Directed by: Fred Olen Ray
Starring: Jo-Ann Robinson, Richard Hench, Roger Maycock
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Looking back that whole video-nasty thing was really just a big anti climax. Kind of like sharing a bed with Angelina Jolie and finding out that she’d just given her vow to a nunnery. In the UK, films like Pranks and Madhouse were reputed to be so vile and depraved that the thought of sitting through one of them felt like stealing your next door neighbor’s car and going banger racing round the block. But when they finally hit shelves some twenty years later it was like, “Oh was that really what all the fuss was about?” That’s why it’s nice to come across a title that someway lives up to its exaggerated reputation. Scalps certainly delivers on the gore score and includes one or two grisly scenes that somewhat exceed the expectations of the shoestring budget. The Grim Reaper and Mystery in Rome also boasted extreme gore scenarios, but still couldn’t lift themselves above mediocrity. I hoped that Scalps could support the bloody stuff with a few decent shocks and surprises.
Six bizarrely spaced out anthropology students head out to the Californian Desert to dig up Indian artifacts. Despite a crazy Ralph-style ominous warning from an old Indian named Billy Iron Wing, they continue their journey deep into the vastly uninhabited wasteland. Whilst digging in the blistering sun, the troupe unwittingly evoke the wraith of Black Claw, the spirit of an evil renegade who died one hundred years earlier. Before long he has possessed one of the gang members and begins to slaughter the rest of them one by one. Stranded in the remote wilderness, the remaining students realize that they have to fight to survive the Renegade’s murderous intentions…
Fred Olen Ray tells us on the very informative DVD commentary track that the original distributors of Scalps took the liberty of editing the movie themselves in an attempt to make it more appealing for the commercial market. Unfortunately, what they did was pretty much make a mish-mash of a film that would have probably been a damn site more intelligible if they had just released it as the director had originally intended. That explains why we see images of the killer roaming the hills before he has even taken possession of the body that he uses to stalk his victims. Despite these unintentional blunders, Olen Ray’s slasher entry is actually a worthwhile addition to anyone’s horror collection. Yes it’s easy to mock the amateurish dramatics, unfocused photography and choppy editing. I’m very sure that any film critique worth his salt could quite rightly rip the production standards to shreds. It’s when you consider the fact that this is probably THE most poorly-financed of the early eighties genre additions thatyou have to give credit for the fact that it actually manages to do what many bigger budgeted efforts from the time couldn’t come close to. You see, for all its shoestring and money skimping short cuts, you just cannot deny that Scalps is still one hell of an unsettling movie experience.
The director wisely chose to mimic John Carpenter’s method of creating an eerie soundtrack and keeping it playing continuously throughout the runtime. It helped to build a credibly creepy and extremely desolate feeling that reamins a fixture right the way through the runtime. The pace is a tad too slow in places, but you’re always aware that something is going to happen soon, and when the shocks finally arrive they certainly deliver perhaps more brutality than you were expecting. The notorious rape sequence feels all the more mean spirited because the victim then has her throat messily slashed before being scalped moments later. There’s also a pretty effective decapitation that shows a plausible flair for the macabre from the director. Not many horror films can create the feeling of isolation that Scalps carries so effortlessly, and that’s why this movie in its uncut form is so severely underrated.
Unfortunately, all this credibility doesn’t come without its fair share of problems. The lighting is no less than awful in places. One minute the characters will be sitting around a camp fire in total darkness and then the next scene will look like it was filmed at around 6 o’clock in the morning. It’s obvious that any early eighties miniscule slasher production isn’t going to have the best lighting rig in Hollywood, but when it boils down to a handful of candles and two flashlights, questions seriously do need to be asked. Perhaps Olen Ray would’ve done better to shoot all the action in the afternoon light, instead of trying to outgrow his finances. As I said earlier, the acting is as block-like as an antique timber yard and some of the camera operators look to have turned up on the set after a 24-hour rendezvous with Jim Bean and Jack Daniels. It’s also worth noting that the bemusing tag lines on most VHS releases make this sound like some type of zombie flick. Don’t be fooled. It is 100% stalk and slash and it looks like the person responsible for the cover blurb didn’t even bother watching the movie.
Scalps is still mean and creepy enough to earn a decent three-star star rating. It is most certainly cheap, but when you consider the fact that drivel like Trick or Treat cost almost three times as much to make, then you have to say that this is a pretty decent chunk of slasher memorabilia. It certainly has the potential to be updated and remade; there just haven’t been enough crazy Indian killers! Certainly worth a look and definitely undeserving of the 2.9 rating that it has on the IMDB
Eyes Without a Face 1994
aka Madness aka Gli Occhi Dentro
Directed by: Bruno Mattei
Starring: Monica Seller, Gabriele Gori, Emy Valentino
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
If you look at the majority of films from the Italian exploitation directors of the late seventies and early eighties, many of them worked within similar – if not identical genres. After Fulci’s ‘Zombi 2′ was a major box office success, Umberto Lenzi (Nightmare City), Marino Girolami (Zombie Holocaust), Andrea Bianchi (Burial Ground) Claudio Fragasso (After Death) and Joe D’Amato (Erotic Nights of the Living Dead) all jumped on the bandwagon to helm their own gory genre-additions. The same could be said about Ruggero Deodato’s Jungle Holocaust, which led to the production of movies like Cannibal Ferox (Umberto Lenzi), Mountain of the Cannibal God (Sergio Martino) and Antonio Margheriti’s Cannibal Apocalypse.
But still by far their biggest contribution to Horror cinema has been the Giallo, which to those that don’t know is basically the Italian version of the American slasher movie – only the Giallo came first. You can blame Mario Bava. His 1963 and 1964 murder/mysteries (The Girl who knew too much and Blood and Black Lace) are in fact credited with launching the cycle. If you check through the filmography of any of the Euro exploitation titans that were working throughout the years that followed, then you’re sure to find a Giallo lurking in there somewhere.
It came as a surprise then when I learned that Bruno Mattei (arguably the sleaziest filmmaker of them all – and the first to jump on the bandwagon) – hadn’t blessed the genre with his own contribution right up until 1994. Now I know that the Italians kept working with the slasher/Giallo category long after the Americans had realised that the cash-cow had been well and truly milked – but by 1994, pretty much the entire world was aware that masked killers were truly a thing of the past. Perhaps that explains why Eyes without a Face or Madness (Gli Occhi Dentro – surprisingly NOT a remake of George Franju’s classic of the same name) has become such a tough little cookie to track down. Even the copy that I eventually found was coverless, subtitled in French and was almost unwatchable due to the poor quality.
Artist Giovanni Dai (Monica Seller) comes under fire from the media when a masked maniac begins emulating the murders committed by the lead character in her comic Doctor Dark. It tells the tale of a murderous schizophrenic that spends his days working as a Pagan professor, but spends his nights murdering babysitters. The assassin then removes his victim’s eyeballs and places broken glass over the bleeding sockets. Before long the slaughters begin getting closer and closer to Giovanni and her boyfriend and it’s left up to the dedicated detective Callistrati (Anthony Zequila) and his squad to stop the psychopath before he finally reaches her…
Madness begins with a surprisingly engaging scene, which hints at the argument that violence in home entertainment has a huge effect on behaviour in the community. This is a popular debate that has stretched from books to cinema and more recently video games and it still rages on even today. “If they kill someone with a power drill, do they take it out on Black and Decker?” Giovanni asks sarcastically. I guess that it depends on your own personnel views whether you agree with that statement or maybe you look at it from a different perspective. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that this topic is being discussed by a character in a movie directed by Bruno Mattei; a filmmaker that has never been credited for showing intelligence in his works. In fact, this feature does a fair amount to disprove the fallacy that Mattei doesn’t have a shred of talent in his body and is just an exploitive hack – something that his critics will always leap to acknowledge. Some of the photography is smartly planned and exciting, the score’s brilliantly orchestrated, the gore’s fairly restrained and he even manages to create a large amount of suspense in a number of the stalking scenes.
The mystery is fairly well constructed and should keep you guessing up until the slightly over ambitious climax. There are also a few moments when Mattei unleashes a few of his trademarks. The first murder victim suffers a particularly graphic eye impalement, which brought back fond memories of Margit Evelyn Newton’s infamous fate in Zombie Creeping Flesh. It doesn’t take too long either for Monica Seller to rip off her clothes and jump on top of her boyfriend – another of Mattei’s necessities. But that’s all you’ll get in the gore and nudity department, even if the other murders are hardly ‘family viewing material’. The inspiration for the feature looks to have stemmed mainly from Umberto Lenzi’s Eyeball; however the killer dresses in a black mask and fedora like a more familiar Giallo bogeymen. He also heavy breathes like an American ‘slasher’ – so it’s obvious that Bruno had taken a dose of the genre’s American counterparts before production.
After a promising start the pace does huff and puff somewhat until the climax and a few more murders would have been nice. It’s also a shame that this was yet another victim of abysmal dubbing for the English speaking market, which made the movie even tougher to appreciate.
Even so, the net result is a fairly decent murder mystery that should push the right buttons for fans of the slasher/Giallo genre. It’s only a shame it’s as rare as a bus in the rain, because it may have done a fair bit to boost Mattei’s debatable cinematic reputation. Give it a try if you can manage to track it down. You may even find that you’re pleasantly surprised…
Final Girl √√