MARK OF CAIN1985
Directed by: Bruce Pittman
Starring: Robin Ward, Wendy Crewson, Anthony Parr
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Brothers and sisters have played a big part in the slasher category ever since its launch. Starting with The Communion in 1976, the number of titles that have incorporated sibling rivalry and mistaken identity into their plots is almost vast enough to warrant a specific sub genre. Attempts such as Just Before Dawn, Nightmare at Shadow Woods, Happy Birthday to Me, The Initiation and Blood Link have all interwoven family bonds to boost their plot lines. Mark of Cain was one of the last cycle entries to use that structure and somewhat bizarrely, it’s also one of the least recognised. Released in 1985 this Canadian thriller never gained much exposure and despite an inviting premise, it rapidly disappeared.
For a thespian, one of the greatest challenges is playing two separate personalities in the same feature. Jeremy Irons and Nicholas Cage were excellent in Dead Ringers and Adaptation respectively, whilst John Lithgow boosted his status after his outstanding quadruple-faced portrayal in Raising Cain. Here Canadian character actor Robin Ward plays two identical twins; one good and the other is dangerously insane.
The plot takes place predominantly around an old and eerie mansion in the Canadian wilderness. It opens with a female searching the snow-laden surroundings for either of the twins that occupy the creepy abode. As she turns a corner, she is suddenly grabbed by an unseen menace and dragged inside the house. She screams and struggles, but the violent aggressor repeatedly stabs her, spraying her blood over the room’s décor. Sean, who we later find out to be the sane member of the siblings, arrives in a car with his neighbour and hears the commotion from inside the mansion. He frantically breaks open the door and follows the blood stains out into the backyard, where he discovers the woman’s mutilated corpse nailed to a tree.
Fifteen years later and Michael is still locked in an asylum for the murder in the opening scenes. His brother Sean comes to see him regularly, but since marrying his girlfriend, the visits have decreased, much to Michael’s anger. Sean finally arrives and informs his brother that he needs to sell the mansion, simply because he doesn’t have the funds to keep it. Michael reacts angrily and brutally escapes the institution, with the intent of reaping revenge on his more fortuitous twin.
It took a long time for me to track down a copy of Mark of Cain, simply because it has never been re-released since its initial VHS outing in 1986. Usually when a movie disappears, it’s never without a good reason, but fortunately that isn’t the case with this taut psycho thriller. Cain opens with some impressive vigour and in places the film builds a credibly suspenseful atmosphere. Bruce Pittman’s energetic direction consistently shines and mixed with some impressive cinematography from John Herzog, the scenes flow fluidly throughout. Although Robin Ward can never be credited in the same bracket as Nicholas Cage, Jeremy Irons or even John Lithgow, here he delivers a decent performance and Wendy Crewson is impressive by his side.
Michael is viciously malevolent as the psychopath and there’s a hint of ritualistic evil to his murders, which is never thoroughly explained. Satanic imagery is strewn subtly throughout the feature without verification, but the movie never digresses into anti-religious melodrama. In one scene he murders an unfortunate extra and then places his body under the wheels of a vehicle before driving over the corpse and then reversing continuously. Despite the fact that Mark of Cain doesn’t boast the hugest of body counts, the grim and macabre flair of the murders is satisfying enough for all blood fiends.
The film’s only problems lie in its failure to take advantage of the benefits of an ambitious plot. An excellent opening eventually gives way to a mixed and bland conclusion and it seems that when the inevitable plot twist arrives, it’s handled somewhat clumsily. The flamboyant direction is hindered by an inane musical accompaniment and at times there’s an obvious lack of lighting.
It’s somewhat refreshing to finally view a rare slasher movie that doesn’t thoroughly disappoint. Mark of Cain may not be an excellent film, but as far as rare splatter flicks go, it’s definitely better than the usual plop that lands on my doorstep. Energetic, well-acted and engaging, I recommend that true genre fans track this one down.
Final Girl √√√
Home for the Holidays 1972
Directed by: John Llewellyn Moxey
Starring: Sally Field, Jill Haworth, Julie Harris
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
What we are gonna do here is go back, way waaay back. Back before Messrs Carpenter and Clark had ‘invented’ the slasher genre…
I was speaking recently to a screenwriter by email who I won’t name right now, because I am going to do a feature on one of his unreleased films at some point in the new year. Anyway, he had scripted (and co-directed) a few slasher flicks during the eighties and I asked him if he was a personal fan of the style or whether it had just been work for him at that time. He told me that he has always had a love for horror flicks and slashers in particular, but the only thing that frustrates him is that everyone seems to think that it all started with Halloween and Black Christmas. He said that this took credit away from the numerous earlier ventures that were equally as good (sometimes better). I do see his point and agree half-heartedly, but I guess the reason why people turn to those two films so regularly is because they actually cemented the trademarks for a new sub genre. They were so popular and so critically well received that it would have been impossible not to use them as reference points. Granted, neither of those could be considered as the first stalk and slash entries, but what they did was take a style of picture that hadn’t yet really been classified and give it definition. They placed the cherry on top, for want of a better way of putting it…
Now Home for the Holidays plays so closely to the rulebook (which hadn’t yet been written) that if you had told me that it had been shot in 1982 and I hadn’t recognised any of the actors involved with the picture, I probably wouldn’t have known any different. This one has it all from a goodie final girl to a hooded killer with a pitchfork.
A father calls back his four estranged daughters for Christmas as he believes that his wife is slowly poisoning him to death and he wants them to get rid of her. Almost as soon as they arrive, it begins frantically raining and they become stranded in the creepy house. Before long a killer in a rain mac begins slaughtering them one by one. Can any of them get out alive?
I’m tempted to say now that they don’t make them like they used to, but I am in fear of sounding a bit older than my thirty years would call for. Home for the Holidays is a stylish, suspenseful treat and it’s a perfect Christmas scary movie. In all honesty, I watched this whilst suffering from a nasty dose of man flu. I felt quite tired, run-down and at first I found it hard to pay attention. This was by no means the fault of the feature, it’s just that it was early in the morning and I wanted to read the news, make myself a cup of tea and the usual palaver. Once the plot got in full swing however, I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen and the ending had me on the edge of my seat. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve seen it all before in other slasher movies, but somehow the fact that this pre-dates the overkill period means that you never can be sure of the rules that it abides by – if any. The twist at the end may not be mind blowing, but it’s the strength of the performances that add depth to the mystery.
Aaron Spelling was the executive producer and the initial plan was that this be shot for Television exposure only, but it later saw a second lease of life on VHS. As it wasn’t intended for cinematic audiences, it spends a lot of time with the characters and in lesser hands could have become tedious and over-talky. But TV director John Llewellyn Moxey builds a truly sinister environment and the constant battering of the rain and thunderstorms creates not only a foreboding atmosphere, but some great jump scares. It’s a tight script from Joseph Stefano of Psycho fame, but it’s the casting department that should really take a bow. The daughters are all clichés; one an alcoholic, one promiscuous, the baby faced goodie and the elderly superior who seems to be the most dependable. But they are so brilliantly conveyed that they never allow the story to feel unrealistic or banal. Sally Field is fantastic and charming as the trusting final girl, whilst Jill Haworth’s exceptional beauty demands a viewing on its own. Julie Harris was also very classy as the ‘is she or isn’t she’ wife and they even managed to get Walter Brennan to play the father!
There’s not much of a body count and we only really get to see the killer stalking on a couple of occasions, but still this is a wonderfully crafted and skilfully shot thriller that deserves to be seen this Xmas. It may not be quite as good as Black Christmas, but the truth is, it’s not lagging that far behind…
Final Girl √√√√