Monthly Archives: March 2015
Directed by: Don Gronquist
Starring: Laurel Munson, Janet Penner, Sara Ansley
Review by Luis Joaquín González
In these recent times of rapid action cuts and CGI overloads, slow boiling thrillers have lost some their allure amongst audiences. I always try to value craft over excess, but recently I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds again and noticed I was losing focus during the lengthy character development parts. It’s strange, because I loved that movie so much when I was growing up.
This fairly intriguing genre entry grabbed a slice of notoriety because it was banned in the United Kingdom and quickly added to the video nasty list upon its release in 1982. With only four on-screen killings during the seventy-two minute runtime, nowadays it’s hard to see what the BBFC found so offensive. It’s been billed most places as more of a psychological chiller than an out and out stalk and slasher, so I promised myself to be extra patient when watching it unfold.
Three young girls that are on their way to a Jazz concert, crash their car in a rainstorm and wake up stranded in a large mansion. Even though everything seems comfortable at first, it soon becomes apparent that there’s a local killer on the loose and the girls have to fight to survive.
Director Don Gronquist has said that his sole ambition throughout his life had been to make a feature film. His first attempt, a serial killer/crime drama based on Charles Starkweather’s exploits, wasn’t picked up until eight-years after its 1973 production date. He didn’t let this deter him and Unhinged proved to be a lot more attractive to relevant suitors due to the boom of the slasher genre. Costing only $100,000 to produce, the film is a mix of Halloween and Psycho that coincidentally results in a blend that’s a lot like The Unseen. The early shots of a car heading along a winding road brought to mind The Shinning, which I also believe played a part in the ambition behind the project.
In terms of the influences taken from Carpenter’s classic, Gronquist pulls off some generally effective heavy-breath POV shots and a strong utilisation of sound to unsettle viewers. Jon Newton’s brooding score works wonders in maintaining an atmosphere and lesser scenes come alive solely because of the striking audio accompaniment. Dressed in a rain-mac, the killer strikes with unpredictability and each murder is brutal and ruthless. If you’re expecting bundles of gore because of the video nasty status, you’ll be disappointed, but there’s something unsettling about the way the killings are staged. Tension is brought from a complex mystery and a claustrophobic feeling that the girls are truly stranded in the wilderness. Building a creepy environment is not something all can achieve, but the unusual characters and (again) that frantic score really do wonders in maintaining the menace.
Whilst there can be no greater sources of inspiration than Hitchcock, Carpenter and Kubrick; as a director, Gronquist doesn’t come close to achieving that level of artistry. Unhinged is shot rather flatly, and rarely tries anything audacious. Outside of the impressive steadi-cam moments, the camera always seems to abide by the safest option and this has a noticeable effect on the film’s energy. Some of the most amateur editing that I can remember certainly doesn’t help matters and it’s surprising that this wasn’t picked up upon before release. We’ll see a shot of an open doorway for three-seconds before someone walks through or a sequence will just stop and fade to black awkwardly. This also plays havoc with the story’s timeline, because I couldn’t keep track of whether minutes or hours had passed between one part and the next. Whilst it would be fair to call Gronquist’s work ‘uninspired’, it deserved a lot better than how his editors made it look.
I called The Unhinged intriguing, and I really believe that it is. The plot concludes with a twist that I didn’t mention so as not to ruin, and it provides moments that are generally chilling. The performances are poor and the technical ability shoddy, at best. Despite that, it remains worth a look because it is so – what’s that word again? – Oh yes, intriguing. I prefer horror films develop an atmosphere and even if the pace does drop here and there, I actually quite liked it.
Killer Guise: √√
Final Girl: √
Just Before Dawn 1981
Directed by: Jeff Lieberman
Starring: Mike Kellin, Chris Lemmon, Gregg Henry
Review by Luis Joaquín González
Being a collector of slasher movies during the eighties was a unique and lonely hobby. Long before there were sites like Hysteria Lives or even the IMDB, contacting other people that understood or shared this passion was an extremely difficult task. I grew up desperately hoping to meet someone who carried the same obsession, but the closest I ever came was a guy that owned a second hand book shop in Bromley-By-Bow. The film I had been searching for at that time was Graduation Day and he was the only person I’d spoken to that knew it existed. He was adamant in his advice that I could certainly live without it, but the more he tried to convince me, the more I wanted to track it down.
In hindsight, I guess you could say that he was right about Herb Freed’s cheesy throwaway, so I had high expectations for the one slasher that he guaranteed I’d enjoy, Just Before Dawn. It’s not hard to find positive reviews for Dawn, it’s amongst the most celebrated of the peak period titles. I remember reading a complimentary piece on The Terror Trap, which led me to put more effort into uncovering a copy, but strangely enough, this is the first time that I’ve sat down to watch it.
A van full of youngsters head up into a mountainous forest for a camping trip and the chance to spend some time together. Almost as soon as they arrive, they meet a strangely deranged local who warns them of a demon that lurks in the mountains. Not letting his rants ruin their adventure, the troupe continue off on their trail. Little do they know that a psychopathic killer awaits them and they have no place to hide.
The cult success of Jeff Lieberman’s Squirm was what had attracted producer David Sheldon to hire him when he set about grabbing his slice of the slasher movie cash cake. Lieberman put together a brief script and an idea for a location, which changed numerous times before shooting began. It’s easy to see how well budgeted Dawn looks in comparison to some of its contemporaries and there’s no doubt that this helped to give the movie it’s thoroughbred reputation. Thanks to a stylish mix of brightly coloured and creatively planned cinematography, we get to experience the work of a director that’s brimming with confidence in his ability. Some of the shots of Silver Falls State Park as a backdrop are so gorgeous that the film feels almost like an advertisement to prospective campers.
Jeff Lieberman has stated recently that he was more inspired by Deliverance than any of the slasher movies that had been storming the box office around this time and it’s visible in what we see on the screen. Dawn doesn’t include lingering POV shots from a heavy breathing antagonist and it ignores the cliched approach for its final girl. Instead we get a group of interchangeable personalities that are given plenty of screentime, but offer nothing that we feel we can bond with. The best horror films climb inside your psyche and convey character actions that you recognise because they’re how you’d react if placed in a similar situation. Our heroine here never convinces that she’s deserving of our sympathy and seeing her climb a tree instead of fleeing her lumbering pursuer and putting on make-up once she’s escaped him makes her look peculiar and withdrawn. It’s almost as if the amount of effort they put into avoiding genre stereotypes left us with a script that forgot about the necessities of compelling drama. With no one from the cast list to root for, the amount of time it takes for the villain to put in an appearance does seem longer than it should have.
Backwoods hillbilly nuts are an ingredient that’s always fun to play with and Lieberman’s bogeyman is a fine example of a merciless assailant. In the opening, we get a gruesome machete impalement that leads us to believe that we could be in for a gory ride, but that early slaughter is by far the most graphic. It’s disappointing that we aren’t given more than a couple of brief bloody after-shots and Jonathan’s murder is ruined because we never really know how he was dispatched. Lieberman instead invests in some artful stalking scenarios where we are made aware that the killer could strike at any moment, but never sure when he will. These include a superb set-piece in a waterfall and a taut sequence that sees the maniac secretly hanging on to the back of the youngsters’ van as they drive into the wilderness. There’s a twist that I wish I wasn’t aware of before I watched the movie and it ends with an impressive tone that could almost be considered surreal.
Whilst Just Before Dawn is certainly amongst the classiest (and dare I say best) of the peak entries, there’s a fair bit that it could have done better. It’s stylishly directed and successful in its attempts to deliver a constant underscore of intimidation, but it’s a bit long-winded and doesn’t pack the punch that it took so long preparing. Stick Ginny Fields in place of the less than appealing final girl and it would have worked a whole lot better. Still, I must give praise for the slick production values and a wonderful soundtrack that gives us Blondie’s Heart of Glass and a terrific score from Brad Fiedel. I just felt that all the gloss couldn’t disguise the gaping hole in the story that a group of well-defined personalities would have fulfilled perfectly.
I have always believed that slasher flicks and especially those of the killer in the woods variety are the most terrifying scary movie, because they convey a concept that we know could really happen. Just Before Dawn understands these fears and brings them to life with some compelling suspense. It’s a slick and well-staged slasher that maintains an engrossing atmosphere. When it comes to killers on campsites though, its cousin from Camp Crystal Lake is still the one I enjoy the most…
Killer Guise: √
Final Girl: √√
Ripper: A Letter From Hell 2001
Directed by: John Eyres
Starring: A.J. Cook, Bruce Payne, Kelly Brook
Review by Luis Joaquín González
Being that I host a SLASH above, it’s fair to say that I’ve watched my share of films that definitely weren’t the best. A few of those though included enough for me to see that certain crew members had the talent for another shot at stardom. Whether it be a smart line of dialogue or a smoothly edited set-piece, a bad film doesn’t always mean that everyone involved is part of the bad-ness. There are a million things that can go wrong during a movie shoot and sometimes a person’s true ability can be concealed through no fault of their own.
John Eyres was responsible for 1987’s woeful killer priest slasher, Goodnight Godbless, and I have to say that seeing his name here didn’t fill me with confidence. I certainly don’t recall anything from that picture that made me think that Eyres’ skill was restrained by the mediocre budget. Still, I’m one of those that believes everyone deserves a second chance and so I’ve finally got round to checking out his follow-up, Ripper: A Letter From Hell.
A girl with a slight attitude problem decides to study criminology under an eccentric professor. She doesn’t get along too well with her classmates, but they become close after a vicious maniac begins to target the group and brutally murder them one by one. They soon discover that they share their initials with the victims of Jack the Ripper and it looks like he could be back from beyond the grave…
At just under two-hours, if Ripper had been of similar quality to its elder brother Godbless, we would have been in for a tiresome exercise in visual punishment. Thankfully, during the fourteen-year gap between those two entries, Eyres has learned a lot about the art of slick direction. In fact, the film launched with such an impressive amount of panache that I was left wondering if this was really the same guy. It shows us the conclusion of a set of killings that occurred sometime earlier in a dense forest. We get flashy cuts and intense camera tricks that build neat tension, even though we don’t know yet who or what we are witnessing. After a couple more fast-paced shocks, we learn that this was a unique way of introducing Molly, our central character. It seems that she was the lone survivor of the aforementioned massacre and she’s now relocated to restart her life and enrolled in a new university.
The next few parts that develop the players (and likely suspects) who will carry us through the runtime are amongst my favourite of the picture. They contain intelligent discussions on the characteristics of serial killers and are shot with intriguing movement that delivers a subtle underscoring of energy to the talk scenes. It’s nice to see that the writers have researched their subject-matter and also they’ve included an authentic slant on one of Scream’s major gimmicks. Whilst Kevin Williamson’s screenplay name-checked the likes of Tom Cruise and Richard Gere, here we get Ted Bundy, Albert DeSalvo and of course Jack the Ripper. The fact that Eyres has privately investigated the Jack the Ripper case for most of his adult life made him the perfect choice for this project. It’s easy to see that he felt he had a score to settle with the slasher genre.
Whilst Godbless owed a lot to John Carpenter’s Halloween, here it seems that Eyres has followed the path taken by Jamie Blanks’ Urban Legend. There are a lot of similarities in the way both films are staged, which I mean as a genuine compliment. The kill scenes are delivered with style and they create some memorable images, like when a freshly murdered corpse pours blood on to a girl’s white dress as she dances below. Another youngster gets rammed off a cliff by a truck that brought to mind the one used in Mirage, and whilst these murders may not be overtly gory, they are powerful due to their brutality. By the time the conclusion comes around, we end up in a tree-chopping factory (?) that really needed a visit from a health & safety expert in a hi-viz jacket. If it doesnt bother the authorities that there are deadly blades that spin around 24/7, perhaps the fact that it’s left totally unguarded will. This leads to a couple of taut chase sequences and a revelation that is highly ambiguous. This was apparently down to Eyres not havin enough budget left to deliver what he had initially intended. I am guessing that might also explain why such a smart story suddenly becomes disjointed in the final ten-minutes.
The cast do a good enough job of keeping things moving without really delivering any sympathetic characters. Ripper is a film that believes in its dialogue and compelling mystery, so the focus is taken off individuals and centred more around the overall plot. We are treated to some truly beautiful actresses and kudos to Eyres for killing off the worst performers quickly. Brit glamour girl Kelly Brook is the first to go and despite her highly unconvincing pleas for mercy, she takes part in one of the greatest stalk and slash murders of the entire cycle. You should watch the film if only for that one sequence.
John Eyres’ website completely ignores Goodnight Goodbless and doesn’t even list it as one of his features. In fact, it goes as far as to say that his filmmaking career began in 1990, which is three-years after that film was released. Whilst it’s unlikely that another British ‘John Eyres’ was responsible for Godbless, the fact that he wants to erase it from his filmography speaks a thousand words. I’m not sure whether that was really necessary, but either way, he had certainly upped his game by the time Ripper went in to production. It’s a tense and engrossing entry that really does impress. In fact I’m fairly surprised that it isn’t more fondly thought of amongst genre connoisseurs.
I guess the only question we are left with is what Eyres was doing that was so important he turned down the sequel…?
Killer Guise: √
Final Girl: √√
The Orphan Killer 2011
Directed by: Matt Farnsworth
Starring: Diane Foster, David Backus, Edward Winrow
Review by Luis Joaquín González
The IMDB is such a fantastic tool for checking out big budget movies. Before going to the cinema or buying a DVD, it’s always worth looking at the ranking that a studio flick has acquired. If it’s above an 8, you’re generally in for an out and out classic, whilst anything from 6.5 will certainly be worth investing two-hours of your life with. Where the site really has issues is when it comes to stalk and slash pictures. Whilst Halloween sits accurately at 7.9, Friday the 13th Part II has a measly 6. It’s even worse when you start to look at low budget entries, and that’s where I found a problem with The Orphan Killer.
After watching the film, I checked to see what others had been saying about it and I found five reviews in a row that had given it 1/10, the lowest ranking that the IMDB offers. There were also a few comments, including the classic, ‘Just when you think you’ve seen the worst movie in the world, you stumble upon this piece of trash.‘ Really? We live in an age where there are features available that have been shot and edited on an iPad, but if you listen to the users on the IMDB, this is poorer than any of them. Without blowing my own trumpet too much, I have to underline the necessity of a site like a SLASH above, where authors like my good self make the effort to analyse these films in detail to give you the best possible heads-up.
Two young children that survived the brutal murder of their parents in a botched robbery attempt are transferred to a catholic orphanage and put up for adoption. Upon arrival, Audrey manages to settle in quickly and make friends with the other kids, but her brother Marcus has a much tougher time and displays bouts of vicious violence that lead to aggressive punishment from his superiors. It doesn’t take long for Audrey to find a home with a loving family, but Marcus is left behind to suffer abuse from the over-zealous priest. Years later, Marcus escapes his confines and returns to the church to hunt out the sibling that he feels abandoned him.
As someone who was collecting slasher VHS during the late eighties, I remember the buzz of hunting out the full version of a gore film. Back then, due to censorship issues, it was a challenge to uncover an uncut copy from foreign (usually Dutch) shores and a real treat when you finally did. The likes of Absurd or Mil Gritos Tiene La Noche were never known for their intriguing plots or great acting, but they certainly delivered on the red stuff, which gave them a unique standing. In more recent times, we have much more leniency in what gets through on DVD or Blue Ray and it means that viewers don’t only demand gruesome effects; they want everything else to boot. If The Orphan Killer had been released in 1981, it would have become one of those cult classics that horror fans spent an eternity searching for. Nowadays though it’s a fossil from a bygone era and gratuitous bloodletting alone doesn’t have the same underground appeal.
Whilst it’s hard for me to say whether my recollections of those times have swayed my opinion, I found quite a lot to appreciate about The Orphan Killer. I am writing this review the morning after the 2015 Oscars and Alejandro González Inarritu’s wonderfully kooky Birdman picked up Best Picture. It was filmed using lengthy tracking sequences that were so cleverly cut that the film looked like one continuous shot from start to finish. Director Matt Farnsworth (on a much smaller scale of course) utilises the completely opposite approach here, but also creates some intriguing visuals that brought to mind early Aronofsky. I counted 8 cuts in a thirty-second scene at one point; and each came from a camera placed in a creative location that was rarely static. It’s almost as if Farnsworth entered a room and spent hours defining all the possible areas that he could shoot from before deciding how he could apply movement to keep the momentum running. During the mid-section, there’s a marathon of stalk and slash action that includes so many camera switches and angles that I literally lost count of them. A great example of this can be found in the murder of the unfortunate nun that I have posted above.
Orphan is a splatter flick at heart and the gore is exceptional considering the stringent funding. Heads are crushed, squashed, smashed and in one really gruesome scene, split in two by a machete. I recall numerous moments that made me flinch away due to the level of grotesque imagery, and this is a picture that revels in the suffering of its players. Marcus Miller is a terrifyingly ruthless antagonist and he stalks with an obvious menace that brings to mind the iconic bogeymen of yesteryear. Unlike many of his kin, Marcus taunts his victims with verbal threats that add to his intimidation and the backstory works to help build his psychopathic aura. David Backus does a superb job of bringing the killer to life and he fills the role with power, strength and maniacal intent.
Even if I have highlighted that gore films are never huge on character development, it is clearly visible how the lack of any at all has left Orphan looking extremely hollow. It’s rare that you’ll see a cast list with so many anonymous credits such as ‘Skateboarder’ or ‘Urban Legend Teen #2’ and the people featured within are given less importance than the props the killer uses to dispatch them. It makes such a difference to have players that we’ve invested in emotionally, but even the heroine failed to win us over in this script. This leaves the film without a solid structure and it plays almost like a collection of kill scenes that have been loosely stapled together. I’m not a fan of death metal and I look at horror as a genre that succeeds when audio and visual are juxtaposed together to bring an environment to life. More often than not I found myself reaching for the ear plugs and the film could have done with a suitably creepy score.
Once Marcus has finally caught and imprisoned Audrey, we get some slower paced torture porn-like scenes that are a lot less engrossing. A directorial style as rapid as Farnsworth’s didn’t flow as well in an enclosed environment and the best pieces of his work came during the numerous chase sequences. In terms of dramatics, the performances were weak but serviceable and kudos to Diane Foster, who gives her all in a portrayal that asked an incredible amount of physicality. The insane killer stalking his sister synopsis has been done to death, but Orphan manages to keep you interested, despite the numerous flaws.
Matt Farnsworth has worked really hard here to give us a film that pushes the boundaries of what we have experienced previously. It infuriates me that all this effort can be brushed off by a 1/10 rating without recognition of all that he has achieved. It’s ok to dislike a film, but it’s a waste of time to read any write-up that contains something along the lines of ‘this is the worst movie ever made’. You’ll have to trust me when I tell you that it simply is not…
Killer Guise: √√√√
Final Girl: √√