Study Hell 2004
Directed by: Mark McNabb
Starring: Brian Austin JR, Randy Cunnigham, Lindsey Day
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
The screen lights up very suddenly with no credits or text introduction. A petrified girl runs in to a school gymnasium and sees a pile of corpses on the floor. She sprints off in to the locker room and begins looking for a place to hide. “This is interesting”, I thought to myself. “We’ve cut out absolutely everything else and just headed straight to the final chase sequence. Is this a slasher short?” My question was quickly answered when the fleeing bunny finally bumped into the unseen maniac and the title ‘Study Hell’ burst on to the screen.
Being a fan of slasher, or in fact any budget movies, is cool because alongside the satisfaction of enjoying the films, there’s also the challenge of hunting them down. I get message upon message asking me to rip Cards of Death, Savage Vows, Early Frost and the like for some of you folk; and even if I certainly would love to, these studios have much better lawyers than little old me. Piracy is a crime and all that.
Anyway I can understand that it’s hard to uncover some of these oldies, especially if they’re not on DVD. But when I got a message asking if I could direct someone towards a copy of Study Hell I was actually fairly surprised. You see this one’s not even that ancient, so why has it disappeared?
A teacher with personal issues is asked to look after a gang of kids who have detention. The teens begin to abuse him, without knowing the fact that he is a Vietnam veteran with a questionable record. Before long he locks the doors and begins to stalk and slaughter the kids one by one.
Back in 1987 there was an Australian film released called Dangerous Game. It put a teenage cast up against a deranged loon in a setting very similar to the same year’s Hide and Go Shriek. If you check my A-Z listings page, you’ll see that I haven’t included it, because for me, it’s not a slasher film. Instead I’d call it something of a cat and mouse thriller. Study Hell really reminded me of that picture in the way that it doesn’t really follow the normal concrete approach for slasher movies. The killer here is a normal guy and he never stalks through Michael Myers-alike POV with heavy breath. In fact, this entry excludes many of the genre’s trappings, but I posted it here because unlike the Ozploitation picture that I mentioned earlier, it just doesn’t fit anywhere else.
It’s from director Mark McNabb and he has been fairly prolific in the DTV market since he shot his first picture, Dark Fields in 2003. He began work on this project straight after but both titles took longer than he’d anticipated to secure distribution and sat on the shelf for three years. Study Hell doesn’t hang around to let you know the reasons why no one was in a rush to package and ship it to unsuspecting audiences, because it’s amateur night right from the off.
Now there are different kinds of bad actors that you can find in the movies. There are those that have studied the art of drama and are just not very good at it, even thought they do try. Then there are those that are just normal people. I mean, like you and I. People like doctors, students, bricklayers, salesmen or cleaners who may well be superb in their chosen profession, but when it comes to portraying emotion in front of a camera, they just don’t have a scooby doo. Here we have a feature that’s crammed with that level of dramatics and it is extremely difficult to watch.
Every conversation is marred by heinous acting and it looks as if McNabb wasn’t even trying to aim for realism. The characters tick every known stereotype but look to have been cast by José Feliciano. We’ve got a junkie thug played by a dweeby guy with glasses, a flirtatious hottie played by a plump non-actress and the ‘maniac’ stalks around with a receding side parting, spectacles, white shirt and an awful tie. The expression on the faces of the ‘actors’ never changes no matter whether they stumble across the corpse of their best friend or are fighting for their lives and the dialogue is just ridiculous.
There are a few unintentional lol moments like the Vietnam war scenes (filmed in the producer’s back garden?) and a hilarious part where a fleeing bunny choses to hide underwater in a swimming pool from the marauding maniac – and he doesn’t see her! Those looking for a hearty slasher though will come away disappointed.
Don’t get me wrong, Study Hell is bad, excruciatingly so, but somehow I wanted to see it to the end. It even has a WTF twist that comes out of nowhere and adds to the paroxysms of laughter. I tried to find out a bit of info about the film’s author James Mcarthur, but what I really wanted to learn was his age. His script comes across like a twelve-year old’s wet dream and it’s tough to believe that an adult would be behind this work. It’s just embarrassing. There’s a final confrontation between our hero (another dweeb in specs) and the nut job and the dialogue and set-up would shame an eighties Van-Damme movie. I wondered after the final credits had rolled, what on earth McNabb thought he was doing when he filmed this? What was going through his mind? If I ever get the chance to speak with him, i’ll also ask where a teacher managed to find a load of hunting knives, a bow with deadly arrows and a hair shaver in a locked school. Any ideas?
I was on something of a roll having watched Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine 3D and Cassandra back to back; and with so much ‘four-star’ action, I was missing the usual junk that I have to sit through to write a review for you peeps. Study Hell came along and changed all that and it’s the first rubbish feature that I’ve sat through in 2013. That my friends is why it has disappeared…
¡Viva El Cinematic Trash!
Final Girl √
Blood Reaper 2004
Directed by: Lory-Michael Ringuette
Starring: Bobby Mackey, Cameron McHarg, Alison Moon
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
A massive part of my youth was spent hunting out slasher flicks in video rental stores across the UK and Spain. My mother/friends and I used to take bus and train rides across cities and I would seek out backstreet ‘mom and pop’ video shops looking through the horror sections and then negotiating a fee for the release to take any slasher trash with me. I clearly remember reading through countless covers on the way home wondering if I had found another Halloween. However the films were rarely as good as I hoped and the best fun to be had was in the hunt.
After the 1996 rebirth, the task became a lot easier as store chains such as Blockbuster would supply a large number of features from low-key distributors as well as the biggest box office draws to hit the rental market. Companies like Film 2000 and Hollywood DVD would unleash slasher upon slasher, picked up for a minimal fee and packaged as the next Scream to unsuspecting audiences.
Thanks to conversations with slasher directors such as Steve Jarvis and Jason Collum, I have learned that most DTV movies are only stop gaps anyway. They are generally picked up or put together by companies who want to package a number of titles and flog them to European/Asian markets, where Western movies are easier to shift. I’ll give you a brief description of the most common methodology and how it works. A US exporter will take one mid-budget feature with a relatively known actor – let’s say for example Extramarital with Traci Lords and Jeff Fahey. They will then offer it outside the US (especially places like Japan) as a bulk deal with a few other flicks that have been developed on shoe-string financing. These titles are the likes of Camp Blood, Paranoid and unsurprisingly Blood Reaper. That’s why there are so many of these released and some even make an ok-ish profit if their distributors are honest with them. The days of self-financing and walking around hat in hand to try and get a print sold are becoming rarer as there’s a market for almost everything and making a film is easier than it once was. I often get asked about Cards of Death, which was released by Sony in Japan on VHS in the eighties, but never got a chance anywhere else. Even though it was shot in the US in 1986 and ticks the boxes of most other SOV pictures of that year it has become mega obscure and your chances of hunting out are pretty much zero. Why? Well it’s simply because it’s rubbish and no one believed in it enough for it to be given shelf space in English speaking countries, so instead it was packed up with a few bigger titles and shipped out to Asia.
Blood Reaper was directed by Lory-Michael Ringuette who was also behind the relatively enjoyable tongue in cheek romp Tele-Zombie from 2004. I can’t shake the belief that low-grade slashers are created by fans of the genre that have the means to achieve something that poor London kids like myself can only dream of – make their own movie. That’s not always the case though and as I mentioned earlier, some of this things are made simply as a moveable unit. Here though, Blood Reaper does seem like a tribute of kind to Friday the 13th and there’s no harm in that.
A group of youngsters head in to the forest for a nice relaxing break, however on arrival they are warned of the legend of a killer who strikes whenever there’s a full moon. Before you can say, ‘I knew it’, a gas-masked villain turns up with his trusty blade…
So we all know (or you should by now) that DTV slashers nowadays are usually as well-made as a cup of tea mixed with cranberry juice. But for every one hundred Psycho Wards, the law of average means there must be a Fright Flick somewhere, right? I tend to look at each example with an open mind, because if not this review would be just one line and that wouldn’t attract many readers. Blood Reaper may not be much of a movie, but it does at least do a few things right.
Firstly, the score from T Reed is absolutely brilliant and the sound bites are in general extremely effective. There’s a mishmash of ideas, from the killer’s heartbeat to the buzzing of wildlife throughout the forest location. It all builds up a neat horror environment and there’s some cheap, tacky but fun gore effects including a brilliant decapitation and another that you can see in the clip above. Ringuette tries a few adventurous shots, which include some underwater photography and the odd sequence that had been well thought out.
Unfortunately, these few pluses don’t cover up the fact that Reaper commits the worst of all cinematic crimes and that’s boredom. The pace here flows like a Spanish village in the summer at 3pm and a lack of fluidity from the director means that the efficient musical accompaniment doesn’t build any suspense. It also has moments of complete stupidity that are obvious signs of amateurism. We don’t really get any such background on the killer’s motives and various characters/scenes never get an explanation. Whilst I am at it, what the hell was with the guy who turned up only to sing an awful country oddity only to disappear straight after? It’s very funny in an unintentional way, but I’d love to know the thought process behind its inclusion?
Continuity in a slasher movie is never worthy of a magnifying glass, but Blood Reaper feels like it was shot, edited by a gibbon and then just given straight to the distributors without it even being checked. This may sound implausible, but believe me when you are watching a maniac struggling to get at two people that are hiding behind a wall that he could easily walk around, you begin to lose hope. Chuck in the usual amount of piss-poor dramatics, non-developed characters and grainy picture quality and you have nothing here but a waste of the £2 you’ll pay to rent it.
Imagine yourself going to the theatre. It starts with a colorful dance sequence with beautiful players and great music. But then as the show begins, everyone forgets their lines and the props fall apart. That’s what level you will get with Reaper, which is no less and no more than a rush-released, uninspired mess. Apparently, director Ringuette is a down to earth and really nice guy. But even if that’s the case, I have been to funerals that have had better pacing than this film.
At last check, there are 4 copies of this available on the UK Amazon and 3 in the US. That means that there were quite a few produced and put on to the market, so in many ways this was by no means an unsuccessful or risky pick-up by the low-grade labels. Luckily, I’m old enough to know now that funky back-cover blurbs guarantee nothing and thanks to sites like a SLASH above, you can always check before you buy. If you pick up this one from the bottom shelf, do yourself a favour. Put it straight back…
Final Girl: √
The Toolbox Murders 2004
aka La Masacre de Toolbox
Directed by: Tobe Hooper
Starring: Angela Bettis, Brent Roam
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Throughout the seventies and early eighties, Tobe Hooper was widely considered as one of the greatest horror directors ever to grace the silver screen. If it wasn’t for his 1974 video nasty The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, then we may never have seen movies like Slumber Party Massacre or any of the other slasher ‘massacre’ titles. We may not have even witnessed classics like Halloween. Sometime after his career redefining joint venture with Steven Spielberg (Poltergeist), Hooper fell into an awful run of consistently poor form. Later years saw uninspired efforts like Crocodile, The Mangler and Night Terrors completely ruin his almost peerless resume. It was somewhat ironic then that he decided to direct a remake of the 1978 gruesome slasher (The Toolbox Murders) at exactly the same time that New Line Cinema were renewing his very own masterpiece (Chainsaw Massacre).
The original Toolbox flick is a tough act to follow, let alone reproduce. What it lacked in style and quality, it more than made up for with brutality that has never been expressed in such a gratuitous fashion. Some of the gruesomely vicious scenes are almost impossible to forget and seeing a masked maniac use a nail gun to slaughter a naked teenager while he merrily hums away like he’s changing a light bulb is a shock tactic has never been used as effectively since. I must admit I hoped for more of the same from Hooper and I knew that he had already proved that he had the quality to break the hex of extremely poor horror remakes.
The Lusman Arms is a run down hotel in Hollywood, which has stood since the early twenties. In the opening scene we see a young woman get brutally murdered by a hammer-wielding black shrouded menace in one of the guest-rooms. Her body is dragged into the shadows and it seems that no one notices her disappearance. Next up we meet Nell and Steve Burrows (Angela Bettis and Brent Roam), a young married couple that have only just moved into the Lusman Arms. Steve is a doctor and spends most of his time out of the house, which leaves Nell suffering with her noisy neighbours through the wafer thin walls. Having already mistaken two rehearsing actors for someone being slaughtered, the Local Police are less than impressed with the housewife’s over-active imagination. But after hearing the diving screams of her neighbour, she begins to realise that the complex has more to its history than first meets the eye. Nell eventually heads out to solve the mystery of the disappearing residents, and what she discovers is more shocking than she could ever have expected…
Toolbox Murders is something of an impressive return to form from Tobe Hooper. Slasher movies are always easy templates to unleash some directorial flair and the veteran horror icon seems to lap up the chances to shine with relish. You can tell from the off that this is going to be something of a step up from the typical post-Scream lowbrow trash. Joseph Conlan’s impressive score keeps the tension running on a knife-edge, and the set locations prove that the feature has been slickly produced. Hooper does a great job of making an ordinary everyday backdrop like an apartment complex feel as creepy as a haunted castle and the conclusion is as exciting as it is enjoyable. The two lead characters are fairly well acted, and kudos to the scriptwriter for giving the viewer the option to sympathise with the protagonist. There are enough mysterious suspects to partake in a reality TV Cluedo marathon and each of them will give you a good enough reason to think that they could be the masked maniac. I especially enjoyed the stuttering manager, who describes a tin full of torn out human teeth that Nell found in her bedroom wall as, “Part of the building’s charm and character!”
At the time I wrote this in 2005, Toolbox Murders had not yet been released in either the US or the UK on DVD, which is somewhat inexplicable. I’m not sure what kind of business this took at the box offices, but I believe that it does certainly deserve a bigger status. There are a few flaws that perhaps undermine Hooper’s experience. The use of stereotypes is beyond belief; and as soon as a creepy toolbox-clutching handyman popped up as a hackneyed red herring, the movie lost a touch of credibility. At times the characters behave with a knack of ineptness that was totally nonsensical and perhaps underlined a lack of effort from the screenwriters. Victims leave themselves open to the killer’s murderous advances in such a fashion that makes you wonder if they were suicidal, and the director fails to add anything remotely different to the conclusion.
Questions will be raised about the numerous plot holes that are scattered throughout the runtime, but personally I feel that they add an extra layer of mystery to the synopsis. Audiences don’t always need to be hand-guided hand through a story. Gaps can be filled by a creative imagination and that is part of the beauty of cinema.
Toolbox Murders is not so much a remake of its 1978 ancestor as it is a complete re-imaging. Yes there’s a nail gun murder and a similar masked killer theme; but this time around we have an intriguing supernatural sheen, which makes the movie a tad more interesting. The rubbish mystery has been replaced with a good old school horror plot that works wonderfully, making this one of the best remakes of the nougties
All in all this is well worth picking up. Gory (one guy gets his head sawed in half ala Intruder),suspenseful (the final stalking scenes are brilliant) and well watchable to boot, this is Hooper almost back to his best. Let’s just hope that he can keep up the good work with his latest adventure – Mortuary (another remake?).
Killer Guise: √√√
Final Girl √√√√