Cards of Death 1986 Review
Cards of Death 1986
Directed by: W.G MacMillan
Starring: Shamus Sherwood, Robert Rothman, Will MacMillan
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
So here it is. The most obscure eighties horror film on the planet…
I have seen Cards of Death described as the ‘Holy Grail’ for slasher fans by one writer on an online forum. A movie so rare that it is barely mentioned in a google search and has never been reviewed by any site on the Internet. It was shot in 1985 on video in California and was the directorial début of William MacMillan. MacMillan starred in the classic Romero zombie flick, The Crazies and has appeared in a few other films and TV shows over the years, including a decent performance in Oliver Stone’s Salvador. He is also a puppeteer and regular on the theatre circuit, which means that he has spent the majority of his life in the world of entertainment.
Macmillan’s status and previous experiences are sure to have given him an insight in to the trials and tribulations of developing a low-budget feature. This makes the disappearance of his only stab at filmmaking all the more bewildering. I have tried to make contact with him for a chat and will continue to do so, but as it stands, I’ll just have to share with you my assumptions based on what I have seen here.
For reasons that remain unknown, Death never secured a distribution deal or even played at a Drive-In in the US and was instead shipped out to Japan, where it was picked up by Sony and packaged on VHS. Even there it received a limited release, so at a guess I would say that there are maybe only a handful of copies left in circulation. I doubt that a master print still exists, because if it did, you could pretty much guarantee that Code Red or someone similar would have already taken advantage of its highly collectible standing amongst horror buffs.
Another thing worth noting is that despite what you may read on horror fan sites, Cards of Death is not a standard slasher flick at all. Instead, it has more in common with Blood Cult or Video Violence and includes multiple killers and an authentic plot.
An unnamed city is rocked by a vicious spate of murders. Every Thursday, a mutilated corpse is discovered somewhere in the streets. When the dismembered fingers and nose of a Police captain are mailed to the department, the victim’s son joins the investigation and helps the attempts to track down the killer. Clues lead to a card game that is being played in a secluded location in town…
So as I said above, this is not a slasher movie in the traditional sense. The murders are quite typical of the genre’s then popular methodology, but they are not committed by a central antagonist, which goes against the grain of the formula that we know so well. The Police are heavily involved in the story and we get to share their journey as they attempt to track down the maniac. The script makes no attempt to hide the identity of the killers however, so there’s no whodunit theme. The plot sprouts its branches from the macabre card games of the title. After each event, the winner gets a nice wad of cash, but the rules dictate that he or she must also murder the loser within twenty-four hours or both of them get slaughtered. In the first example of this, the victorious player sticks an axe in the chest of his target and then wraps a length of barbed wire around his face and throat in unflinching close-up. The participants use tarots instead of the usual deck of 52 and the rules of play are best described as a murderous twist on Poker. If the ‘death card’ turns up then it means exactly that – a bloody death for the unfortunate holder.
The men partaking around the table disguise their identity with rubber masks, whilst the women dress in provocative dominatrix gear, which may explain the links to the stalk and slash cycle. From a distance, if you consider that it includes masked killers, hatchets and blades then I guess you can understand why it has been classified as a missing entry. It’s worth keeping in mind though that there are no POV shots, there’s no final girl, no stalking and no shocking twist; so in my opinion, Macmillan wasn’t targeting the slasher crowd specifically. Where this does sit closely with most of its brethren on this site though is in the high levels of exploitation on display. Even in the US, censorship was at its harshest during the eighties, so did this contribute to its lack of distribution? That could well be the case.
The gore effects from Bryan Moore (He has worked on various pictures including, Dolls and Underworld Evolution) are the best thing technically about the picture. In the opening, a guy gets his nose sliced off and it is a very memorable scene, worth ranking with any other great eighties splatter moment. Later on we are treated to a few more equally gruesome set pieces, including a girl being crushed in a large human slaughter device. Most of the female characters get naked regularly and the tone can feel somewhat perverted at times. This is most obvious when we see a bizarre sequence where two of our murderous culprits make out next to the corpse of their victim. Moments earlier they had been drinking her blood from a wine glass and they continue to bathe in her crimson whilst they get it on! Chuck on top of that some cocaine snorting from the gang of maniacs and the levels of sleaziness are high enough to have given Jesus Franco a boner.
I appreciate that all this makes Cards of Death sound like it is well worth tracking down, but it is riddled with flaws that make it uncomfortable to watch. The dramatics are constantly poor and the photography is shaky and blatantly unprofessional. The fact that it has been shot on video doesn’t help and as you can see from my screensnaps, the sets are poorly lighted. By far the biggest disappointment though is the pacing, which fails to generate constant interest. I was looking away from the screen more often than not and it is only in the last twenty minutes that the story begins to gather momentum.
When the final credits roll, we get an awful theme song (Beware the cards of death etc) that sounds like a tone-deaf alcoholic warbling over a Casio keyboard. Kind of like a Ronettes 45 that’s been played on 33. I am guilty of mentioning rubbish theme songs a lot on a SLASH above and it seems that they are quite common in the slasher genre. So keeping in mind that I have experienced so many, I’m happy to state that this is one of the worst. ANYWHERE EVER.
Cards of Death is an interesting film mainly because it is such an enigma. I doubt that many of you have seen it, simply because it is as rare as an honest politician. It has some strengths, which include a superb story, some brutal deaths and a decent last twenty minutes. If it had been seen a bit more, I would have no hesitation in calling it a pre-cursor to the Torture Porn films that would dominate horror over a decade later. Perhaps the most inexplicable thing is why it never got released in its country of origin. It’s by no means a good movie, but I have seen many that are worse. I feel extra pressure to describe Cards of Death to you, because I know how much it has become THE lost slasher that everyone wants to see. Well you can most definitely live without it, but it’s one that I am quite happy that I have in my collection, if that makes sense.
Sleazy, gory and cheap to boot; I guess if it was widely available you could consider it to be a similar type of flick to 555 or maybe The Ripper. The fact that MacMillan has never really pushed to get it released probably says more than my words ever will. Well at least now you know something about it and that it actually does exist. If you have any more questions, feel free to contact me in the usual ways…
Killer Guise: √√√