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: √√
Halloween II 1981
Directed by: Rick Rosenthal
Starring: Jamie Leigh Curtis, Donald Pleasence, Charles Cyphers
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
It was always going to be tough to follow up one of the greatest horror films of all time, no matter how good a filmmaker took the task. Halloween had been a magnificent success across global markets, which meant that there was still power in the brand and intense pressure to put together a continuation. John Carpenter passed up the opportunity to direct a second time around, because he felt that a new vision would bring more ideas to the production. The job was handed to relative unknown, Rick Rosenthal, who showed the most positivity when auditioning. Carpenter stayed on as producer and also wrote the screenplay, which proves that he wasn’t ready to completely hand over the reins.
Since 1978, Terror Train, Prom Night and Friday the 13th had come the closest financially to matching Carpenter’s classic, but none of them had received the same respect from critics or audiences. Michael Myers was still the most fiercely terrifying antagonist to stalk and slash his way through the silver screen and there was little doubt that another entry to the series would be hugely popular amongst the buzzing horror crowd. In the end though, Rosenthal’s follow up failed to capture the enigma of its predecessor, despite a strong showing at box offices. It is not uncommon in cinema for a sequel to be weaker, but perhaps on this occasion it was due to the sheer weight of expectation. I decided to review Halloween II as if it were a stand-alone feature and ignore, where possible, connections to Carpenter’s classic. I was hopeful that this would allow me to overcome the disappointment that I have carried since first watching it almost eighteen-years ago.
After the events of the last movie, Laurie Strode is rushed to the hospital, leaving Dr. Sam Loomis to hunt the streets for Michael Myers. Myers however is out to locate Laurie no matter the cost and another battle for survival ensues…
Rosenthal’s slasher starts with an explosion of energy. The camera floats around the action to create the impression that we could actually be at the location watching it unfold. There’s a subtle buzz of tension to each and every scene of the initial manhunt and I was over the moon to be back amongst the Haddonfield streets that I know and love. Donald Pleasance, whose performance was vital the first time out, hams his way through some superb dialogue and lines like, “You don’t know what death is” really bring the opening to life. After a while, we transfer to the local hospital, which becomes the main backdrop for the rest of the runtime. As more characters are introduced, the pace drops a bit and it’s left up to Carpenter’s rehash of his notorious score to keep the chills pulsating.
It’s in the mid-section that Rick Rosenthal shows what differentiates him from Carpenter. There are various attempts at shocks (most notably an awful false cat scare), but they feel far more laboured than they have when seen in other places. Carpenter himself had seen the effect that his seminal picture had made upon movie trends and was aware that imitators were using more visceral ways to clip young victims. He later went back and shot gore scenes, which he added to the murders after the shoot and Rosenthal blamed those for ‘disrupting the film’s momentum’. Whilst this underlines my feelings that Carpenter wasn’t fully prepared to let go of his baby, it’s somewhat harsh of Rosenthal to highlight this as a cause for the diluted fear factor. With that said, he did at least pull off one or two credible set pieces and the build up to the ‘hot tub’ murder is perfect in its delivery.
The director does save the best for last and when Michael finally discovers Laurie Strode, the simmering apprehension comes to an almighty boil. Due to her injuries and the painkillers that she’s been given, Strode is even less battle-ready than she was last time around. There’s suspense delivered in a superb chase sequence through a basement and Jamie Leigh Curtis is at her scream queen best for these moments. I still don’t feel comfortable with the revelation that she’s Michael’s sister, but I guess that John Carpenter was taking something back from the countless titles that had taken from him. Family connections had been key in most slashers that followed in the wake of Halloween (Prom Night, Friday the 13th, Bloody Moon etc) and I’m sure that this was something that he had noted.
I liked the way that that they finally ‘stopped’ the boogeyman and it feels like the story had come full circle. The shot of him emerging from the flames reminded me just how much even a great film like The Terminator had been inspired by these movies (including the duplicate of that scene, antagonist POV shots, the way Arnie sits up, the have sex and die rule etc). It’s interesting that very few critics notice this.
Was Halloween a movie that needed a sequel? Quite frankly, no; but taken as a stand alone, this is a SLASH above many others. In the years that followed, Rosenthal had one good movie left in him, Bad Boys with Sean Penn, but he never found the breaks thereafter. Whether he was the right choice here is all up for debate, but I must admit that I preferred his TV ‘director’s cut’ of the two available versions.
After watching with a mind clear of comparisons, I can comfortably state that Halloween II is an extremely good slasher film. Rosenthal’s gimmicks, like the cuts to the CCTV footage of Michael stalking, are a nice addition and aside from an uneven pace, there’s really not much here to criticise.
Killer Guise: √√√√√
Final Girl √√√√√
Directed by: Joe D’amato
Starring: George Eastman, Annie Belle, Ed Purdom
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
About fifteen-years ago, whilst looking round the second-hand video shops in Soho, London, I stumbled upon a gleaming copy of Absurd for only £4.00 ($8.00). Seeing how the movie had been banned in Great Britain since the Video Nasty days, I knew that the guy behind the counter wasn’t aware of the true price of what he was losing out on. Finding Joe D’amato’s splatter extravaganza completely unedited and at an extreme budget price was indeed good fortune on my part and so I picked it up and rushed home for a gore-soaked evening’s viewing.
This is not a direct sequel to Anthropophagus, although George Eastman returns as the demented bogeyman. The secluded Island has been abandoned as a location and instead he roams a small (supposedly) American town and hospital, which was obviously inspired by Michael Myers’ exploits in John Carpenter’s Halloween and Halloween II. Eagle eyed viewers will spot British-born actor and slasher regular, Edmund Purdom, who was certainly slumming it after already ‘starring’ in Pieces and following this with Don’t open ’til Christmas. His choices of roles over those years deserved an award of some kind. A B-movie Razzie? Well, not many performers at any level have endured trash to such an extent.
In the beginning, a priest (Purdom) is seen chasing Mikos Stenopolis through a forest. The pursuit continues until the visually deranged giant reaches a huge gate. As he begins to climb over, the clergyman grabs him and pulls him on to the sharp spikes, effectively disemboweling him. Mikos crawls up to the house that was behind the fence and staggers in to the kitchen where he falls to the floor clutching his entrails. A quaint family owns the mansion that he stumbles in to, and as you can well imagine, they’re pretty shocked when they see the bearded beast collapse in their doorway with his guts in his hands. (Literally!) He is taken to a nearby hospital where surgeons are bewildered by his impressive recovery skills and before long he’s up on his feet, drilling through the head of an unsuspecting nurse as he goes. For some bizarre reason, he seems to have taken a liking to the house that he chanced upon earlier, so he heads back there, taking the time to kill off any bystanders that he runs into on the way. A teenage girl that’s recovering from a spinal operation, a young (extremely obnoxious) boy and their babysitter inhabit the home and before long, our unstoppable maniac is skulking in the shadows with an axe. Meanwhile, perhaps the family’s only salvation is the priest from earlier who has joined forces with the local constabulary in a bid to stop the maniacal killer. We soon learn that his indestructibility was the result of a military science experiment and the only way that he can be killed is by completely destroying his brain. That sounds like the perfect cue for a gore-tastic showdown.
Whereas Anthropophagus made good use of its effectively foreboding locations to create an overall feeling of uneasiness that sat heavily on your shoulders throughout the movie, Absurd rarely touches on that level of fear or apprehensiveness. Instead the movie’s real impact is displayed visually, in the bundles of goo and vicious murders. Perhaps the most disturbing of the bunch is when an unfortunate guy is caught off guard whilst sweeping a warehouse and gets his head chopped in half with a band saw, which is, of course, filmed in graphic close-up. D’ amato tries to add as much suspense as he can to the stalking scenes, but more often than not his results are inconclusive. On occasion, he pulls off the odd effective shock, like when the assailant springs on the unsuspecting Emily as she attempts to cross the spacious kitchen to reach the child that she’s protecting. He then continues the savage brutality by trying to cook her head in an oven, whilst she’s alive and screaming for mercy. Slasher films are notorious for setting a tone that borders on black comedy and therefore avoid displaying the suffering of their dumb and poorly acted victims. Absurd on the other hand is incredibly sadistic and unforgiving in what it conveys on screen when Stenopolis strikes.
The roots of inspiration are grounded in the genre pieces from America and D’amato avoids the Giallo approach that is far more prevalent amongst his native counterparts. The director relinquishes the black hat and gloves of a mysterious killer in favour of a Michael Myers-alike hulking boogeyman that stays on screen from the outset. Setting a temporarily disabled teenage target as the film’s heroine was an effort to maximise Carpenter’s methodology of making his protagonist a polar opposite in terms of strength and defensive ability. It’s obvious that the director wanted the chance of survival for his characters to be as inconceivable as possible in order to make things all the more terrifying. Perhaps the only influence taken from his countrymen is the excessive use of gore that would become a trademark for names like Lucio Fulci, whom perhaps D’ Amato’s work can be most closely compared with. He lacks the panache of an Argento or Bava, and instead opts for shock tactics and bloody excess.
Seeing too much of Eastman’s growling insanity breaks the ‘less is more’ guideline that proved most effective in deft slasher outings. The fact that we know from the start that Mikos is indestructible removes the surprise element that we got from Michael Myers when he arose after those six shots in Halloween. There’s no denying the fact that the barrage of gore is attractive to horror hounds, but the film struggles to sustain a credible momentum during the in-between parts. The performances are extremely poor and Purdom’s attempt at a Greek accent is hilarious, even though he was arguably the best performer of an awful bunch. Let me state that again, Edmund Purdom was the best actor on show here… Yes, the movie does have that many problems. When we are away from the ferocity of Mikos and his machete, the pace slows right down to an almost standstill and sleepy heads might find their eyes beginning to link together for a snooze.
D’amato gets labelled as a hack more regularly than most, but the recent peak in slashers that include bags of goo have justified his work to be better than the criticism that he has received for the best part of thirty-years. It’s not hard to fill the screen with corn syrup, but creating a tone of dread is a skill that we don’t come across regularly enough. Even if it may be true that this lacks the chills that his previous slasher conveyed so credibly, it still provides enough to create an underlying atmosphere of gloom.
Final Girl: √
Don’t Go In The Woods 1981
Directed by: James Bryan
Starring: Jack McClelland, Mary Gail Artz, James P. Hayden
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Picking out the crème de la crème of the stalk and slash genre is a task that’s only too easy. Ask nine out of ten fans for their opinions on who’s the king bogeyman, and I’m betting that they’ll all reply, without pause for a breath: Michael Myers, Halloween. You may get the odd individuals that’ll pipe up with their love for Scream or Friday the 13th, but more often than not, it’ll be John Carpenter that rightly snatches the glory for his long-standing seminal masterpiece. A much tougher task on the other hand is attempting to root out the category’s biggest toads, simply because, there’s just so many of them. For every one half-decent attempt at rehashing the formula, there are twenty or more total turkeys, which makes the mission to save Private Ryan look simple compared to hunting out the undisputed crapola champion. If there were ever a poll to seek out the lowest of the low in psycho-killer entertainment, then I can guarantee, without a shadow of a doubt in my mind, that Don’t go in the woods would be there gleaming amongst the top five.
Woods is a true, true travesty of a movie that sinks the tonal depths in just about every way shape and form that a motion picture possibly can. Everything from the torch with low-batteries worthy lighting to the woefully irritating score – which sounds like it was composed by a drunken moggy running across the keys of his owner’s Bontempi – puts this rancid beast on a new level of shameful amateurism.
Certainly the most bizarre slice of trivia that has allowed this to gain the smallest level of cinematic notoriety is the fact that it was banned in the United Kingdom. Along with the bland, but not quite as atrocious Delirium, this is yet another video-nasty that leaves you questioning the astoundingly stringent decisions of UK censorship during the early eighties. Perhaps it was all just an ingenious marketing ploy to allow copies of this junk to sell for nonsensical prices on e-bay in years to come? (The other day I saw one up for £30!) I don’t know for sure, but either way, it doesn’t deserve the cult-classic accolade it has achieved since it was considered a tad too extreme by some numbskull left-wing Guardian reader.
It kicks off with shaky shots of some beautiful woodland. A young woman comes sprinting from out of the trees, closely pursued by jerky steadi-cam. She trips over, screams, and just when you think she’s about to get splattered – the screen jumps like a kangaroo on a hot plate. At first I thought that I may have been watching a heavily censored print, I mean this was 1982 and the video-nasty prohibition was just about to kick-off all over the world. I took the liberty of asking JA Kerswell from the kingdom of slasher knowledge – Hysteria Lives – if there was an uncut copy floating around. He told me that this was the only version that he knew of, and simply to put the erratic skipping down to cack-handed editing. In fact, he told me to put the whole movie down to bad editing, but I guess that we’re jumping the gun a little by saying that this early in the review. (Though I must admit, he does have a point.) Cut to a bird watcher loitering in the same area (presumably). He’s only on screen for ten seconds tops, and then the still unseen maniac turns up and offers him a life-long disability permit by gorily yanking off his hokey arm, which looks like it was moulded with paper-mâché.
Finally we get to meet four characters that aren’t only there to be butchered (just yet). There’s Craig, who infuriatingly keeps lecturing everyone on the dangers of strolling through the woodland. It’s a characteristic that grates throughout the runtime, until he bumps into Mr. nut-job a lot later than we’d really have liked him too. Suffice to say that his woodland experiences didn’t prepare him for that particular endeavour. The second male along for the ride is Peter, the brash rebellious guy, who’s full of piss and vinegar right through to the film’s ridiculous climax. They’ve also brought along their two girlfriends, but they’re both so flat that I really can’t be bothered to think up a description. The only thing that I will say is that one of them looks alarmingly like Richard Cunningham from Happy Days, even sporting a ginger ‘flat top’ side-parting. Anyway things plod along at the pace of an autistic tortoise, as we cut between the four nincompoops enjoying all that nature has to offer, and various no-hopers getting splattered by the psycho, who looks like a cross between a caveman and a hippy. Don’t go in the Woods’ only claim to any originality comes when Peter decides enough is enough, and heads out into the trees to track down and get revenge on the killer. Ho-hum indeed…
Funnily enough, the film was released this side of the ocean as Don’t go in the woods Alone, which would’ve been a catchy little title if it wasn’t so profoundly riddled with irony. You see, when the ‘hero’ does eventually jog off into the forest on his lonesome, not only does he manage to emerge with his limbs intact, but he also ends up defeating the maniac. Perhaps a more suitable title would have been Don’t go in the Woods in a Wheelchair, because one unfortunate friend of the director spends a tiresome ten minutes struggling to get to the top of a rocky hill in his. When he finally does reach the peak, the loony proves that he’s a nasty piece of work by showing us that he has no compassion for those with disabilities – Tsk! We never find out why this particular victim decided to take his wheelchair into the uneven grounding of a forest of all places, but to be honest, character development wasn’t brimming from the screenwriter’s mind when it came to padding out these 82 minutes with body count material. Characters are manufactured only for the slaughter, and if they do get a small snippet of dialogue, then it’s usually so inane that they themselves look puzzled as they struggle desperately to convince. Take for example the two newly-weds (so it says on the cover), who provide the only real quality cheesy giggle. It seems that the guy’s unfortunate enough to be called Dick, and his fledgling missus makes the best comical use of his name, by goofing things like, ‘Oh Dick, oh Dick…It’s just that my head isn’t in the right place Dick.’ (Make what you want of the last bit) Anyway Dick and Cherry (no, really) won’t be celebrating any anniversaries in the near future, they too were cast only as soon-to-be deadites.
Every review that I’ve ever read on this dollop of dung, refers to the theme song that plays over the end credits, which means it’d be pretty un-original of me to do exactly the same thing. But after hearing it, I can appreciate an author’s keenness to quote the lyrics word for word. God bless composer H. Kingsley Thurber is all that I can say, his ‘remarkable’ nursery rhyme re-imaging is one of the funniest things that I have ever had the pleasure of hearing. This being a ‘video-nasty’, you’d expect to find gore to rival the bloodiest Fulci or sexual nudity straight from Debbie does Dallas. But no luck in that department either, every character keeps their blouses buttoned, and the first Friday the 13th was bloodier, which cancels any gore hounds delight, because that got released on a stringent eighteen certificate.
Don’t go in the Woods is truly a work of utter incompetence that can only be rivalled by crap like Movie House Massacre in the shoddy film-making department. One character summed up her movie-making experience perfectly as she trundled through the woodland on the long winding path to film obscurity. Discussing the enviroment at that particular moment, she blurted out something along the lines of, ‘what a stink, yuk – it’s rancid!’ What she could never have predicted is that not even a truly polished cinema critique could have given a more accurate description of what she was partaking in. If you’re still one of the insane few that bids tirelessly on eBay to own an original copy of this stinker, then please do yourself a favour and save yourself the pain. This is one of the many cases when the bidding is the most fun that you’ll ever get if you win. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!
Killer Guise: √√
Final Girl: √
Bloody Moon 1981
Directed by: Jesus Franco
Starring: Olivia Pascal, Christopher Moosbrugger, Nadja Gerganoff
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
I always believed that the Máximo Espejo character in the brilliant romantic comedy, ¡Átame! (1989) was based on Jesús Franco. That film’s director, Pedro Almodovar, also used scenes from Bloody Moon in another of his Antonio Banderas led pictures, Matador from 1986. Does this mean that Almodovar is a fan of his fellow countryman’s work? It’s hard to say, but the amount of sleaze in Franco’s 180+ filmography makes it easy to overlook the fact that he could be a capable filmmaker when he put his mind to it.
After the success of Halloween, a German production team approached Franco to help them put together an entry strong enough to grab a share of the hottest cinema craze. Bloody Moon went on thereafter to become something of a grindhouse classic in cult circles. This was mainly due to its whacky dialogue, explicit gore and extreme nudity. After being released uncut pre-cert on VHS in the United Kingdom, it went on to join the DPP list and become a video nasty, which added to its notoriety. Much like I had done with Juan Simón’s Pieces, I wanted to go back and view it with an open mind to see what I made of it.
A group of German students head to a language school in Spain to brush up on their Español and catch a bit of sun. It becomes apparent that they are sharing the location with a disfigured murderer who has just been released from the local asylum. Girls soon begin disappearing, so could it be that Miguel has not been fully cured?
Checking out Bloody Moon after all these years, I found that I appreciated it much more than I did a decade ago when I wrote the review that you can find here. This time around, I watched it in Spanish and the dialogue is not as hilarious as the, “I love your tenderness” and “let yourself melt in my arms” slop that we got in English language prints, which helps to make it a bit less comical. Juan Soler utilises a bright palate of cinematography that brings the screen alive, but he does overuse the zoom effect too much. Screenwriter Erich Tomek pinches a lot from Halloween, including the isolation of the final girl in her knowledge that there’s a psychopath on campus. In that role, Olivia Pascal screams her way through each new scenario with a subtle vulnerability and we do genuinely want her to survive.
The mystery is clumsy in the amount of early information that it gives us, but there are still a few surprises to be had as it unravels. Franco includes a couple of tense sequences, like the claustrophobic finale, which sees Pascal’s character uncover the corpses of her chums spread around her apartment. Juan Molina’s gore effects haven’t aged well, because nowadays, we can see similar levels of goo in most DTV efforts. Still, there’s something quite unsettling about watching a young kid get mowed down by an automobile (no, really) and the famous buzzsaw murder of a promiscuous chick hasn’t lost any of it’s pitch black humour. After letting herself be tied to a table, the aforementioned bimbo quips that she’s up for anything with what she believes is a hunky Latin lover. It’s funny, because she’s expecting to get drilled (if you know what I mean) and instead, she ends up getting sawed and TOTALLY screwed!
I wrote in my notes that some elements of the extraordinary soundtrack were almost Pink Floyd-like and then I read that Franco had falsely been promised some authentic music from that band by his producers before signing on. No wonder that he later stated that he had countless problems with them and that may explain some of the outright weirdness that we come across in the story. I mean, if there were two opposing visions working on the project, then who knows what came from where.
Going back after all this time, I’m still not convinced that Bloody Moon is much more than a cheese-sleaze slice of trash. It’s enjoyable trash though, which I guess is most important. It’s a film that I feel often gets overlooked, because with the hottest collection of chicas that I can remember, some fun gore and more moments of WTF than you can shake a stick at, it deserves a lot more recognition than it currently boasts.
Bloody Moon is gleefully bad enough to be enjoyed and although it hasn’t aged as well as others, it’s still well worth re-checking.
Killer Guise: √√
Final Girl: √√√√
Rosemary’s Killer 1981
aka The Prowler aka The Graduation
Directed by: Joseph Zito
Starring: Vicky Dawson, Farley Granger, Laurence Tierney
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
So here we have it, my favourite ever slasher movie. (I don’t include Halloween in that, because well – that’s everyone’s favourite). I found out about Rosemary’s Killer when I was at school and by the strangest possible means. My buddies and I used to have a sly cigarette in an old shed in the woods nearby to where I lived. We would always find ripped magazine pages covering the floor and as devious thirteen-year-olds, we would hope to uncover something interesting amongst the mess. Anyway, one night I went there alone and as if by fate, lying in the corner was a horror fanzine in pretty good condition. I was already a huge fan of the genre and so I scurried home to study the pages in the comfort of my bedroom. There in loving colour, my eyes first met with the iconic image from one of the finest killings of the category; – ‘The swimming pool murder’. You can see it in the picture to your right and it is also the background of a SLASH above. I immediately began a hunt for a copy on VHS, which much like my search for Graduation Day, would continue for much longer than I’d hoped.
Now without eBay and Amazon, my method for tracking down slashers was restricted to car boot sales around the London area. I found lots of titles during my travels, including Night Screams, Nightmare (Dutch uncut copy!) Ghostkeeper, Stormbringer,One by One, The Demon, Fatal Games and Psycho Puppet. However the one that I REALLY wanted remained elusive. It started to become an obsession, but after months of trying, I finally came to the disappointing conclusion that I would probably never see the darn thing. Then through a twist of fate, I found a video-search agency that came to my aid with an almost pristine copy. The price of £30 was daylight robbery, but for me it was mission accomplished and I probably would have paid £50
Avalon Bay is getting set for the first annual dance since a young couple were viciously murdered 35 years earlier. The youngsters of the community are eagerly anticipating the event and spend the day preparing and decorating the town hall. The junior Deputy is alone for the first time as the Sheriff has gone on his annual fishing trip and stress levels are raised when it’s revealed that a wanted criminal that slashed two young females could be heading to the area. As darkness descends, it becomes apparent that there’s a maniac dressed in World War 2 army fatigues stalking the Bay. Can the Deputy muster the courage to stop him?
Rosemary’s Killer is not only one of the best examples of stalk and slash cinema from the golden era, but it’s also one of the most underrated. The movie ticks every box in terms of the relevant trappings and instead of just ticking them, in a few places it completely surpasses them. I like the World War II gimmick and I think that the killer’s disguise is an absolutely brilliant touch. His calling card of leaving a rose by his victims is creepily effective and there’s a great moment towards the climax where he offers it, almost romantically, to the final girl before attempting to ram a pitch folk through her! In 2007, a low budget entry by the name of Rose of Death attempted to utilise the same idea, but failed to add the slash with panache necessary to pay tribute to this sterling effort.
It’s Zito’s pacey direction that sustains an awesome amount of suspense during the first half, which works, because even when not much happens, we are kept fully aware that something could at any moment. Other parts of the film equally excel in their technicality with some beautiful photography and a focused score. I especially liked the staircase stalking sequence, which in true popcorn fashion, keeps everything tight by having the intended victim make all the wrong decisions.
Vicky Dawson makes for a classy final girl and she works well in partnership with Christopher Goutman. For relatively inexperienced performers, they carry the picture comfortably and they deliver only one or two weak moments. I thought Dawson was unfortunate not to have built a longer career in cinema, because much like Amy Steel in Friday the 13th 2, she offers a sweet and alluring naivety, but shows brave independence when left alone to face the prowler. Before the final credits rolled, my wife who was watching with me said, “tough girl” – my sentiments exactly. Farley Granger added class to the cast list, but it’s been confirmed that he had a horrible time on set and suffered some uncomfortable sweating during the make-up effects. Laurence Tierney’s on-board too, although I have no idea why, his character is barely used to much effect and was probably a waste of budget.
Tom Savini’s effects once again steal the show and there’s no denying that Killer is amongst the best of his work. We feel at times that what we are watching is almost too realistic and the swimming pool killing even includes an aftermath shot that’s uncomfortable in its authenticity. It happens as the victim’s lifeless body sinks to the tiles below and her legs begin to twitch as her nervous system comes to terms with the fact that the lights are going out for the last time. The best part of the sequence was actually a mistake from Savini, because at the same time as the gallons of blood seep from her wound, some bubbles also appear under the water (from the pipe pumping the goo). Instead of re-shooting, the effects master recommended that Zito utilise the footage as is, because the bubbles look as if they were the last gasps of the dying teenager’s breath.
It’s been noted that the plot structure is similar to the same year’s My Bloody Valentine and the two would work superbly on a double-bill. Strangely enough, what one title lacks the other boasts in abundance and if you were to mix the two together you would have the perfect slasher film. Whilst MBV also has some great kill scenes (equally as gratuitous) and a good-fun factor that adds momentum to the plot, it lacks any decent suspense. Rosemary’s Killer on the other hand is nail-bitingly tense in places, but has some serious problems with its pace.
Now I picked my favourite slasher film when I was about fourteen years old and much like my love for the Arsenal (the closest team to where I lived), I must admit that it was a ‘teenager’s decision’. Adults have the ability to analyse; step back and view the bigger picture before making a choice. Young minds do everything spontaneously and I didn’t notice the faults back then in Rosemary’s Killer that I see now. As I said, it starts superbly and comes across almost like an anxiety marathon. My Mrs and I were watching it together in silence, knowing full well that there would be a shock at any moment (And I have seen this flick a lot of times). Then after about thirty minutes the rapidity dries up and the film can’t maintain the same thrust.
It’s not necessarily the fault of Joseph Zito, but the script wastes too much time building the mystery in locations that are drab and overtly dark. Some parts could have been much shorter or removed completely during post production to make the film slicker. I especially thought that the length of time used when the Deputy was contacting the Sheriff was ridiculous and ultimately ended up being a pointless diversion.
Despite those issues, this is still one of the best entries of the golden period. It does drag a bit in the development of the plot, but the excellent kill scenes and two fantastic leads more than make up for it. Joseph Zito was widely tipped to be a future horror maestro after his work on this and Friday the 13th The Final Chapter (one of the better sequels of the series). When horror began to lose its way towards the second half of the decade, he moved over to action-orientated flicks, which didn’t give him the same chances and his career unfortunately faded.
I would say that Rosemary’s Killer, even under its superb two alias titles, is a perfect example of a solid horror director’s work. It’s also a time-capsule from the best year of the slasher genre thus far. I’ve seen it more times than I care to remember but still not once too many. Enjoy…
Killer Guise: √√√√√
Final Girl √√√√√
American Nightmare 1981
Directed by: Don McBrearty
Starring: Michael Ironside, Lawrence Day, Lora Stanley
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
This is the earlier of two slasher movies in circulation that have the title American Nightmare. The more recent one was unleashed amongst the mass of Scream imitators and disappeared fairly quickly, whilst this entry from the golden years looks to have suffered a similar fate. With a score from Paul Zaza and a cast that included (then) up and coming talents like Michael Ironside, Lora Stanley and Lenore Zann it came as a surprise to me that it didn’t grab any of the buzz that served its compatriots like Curtains, My Bloody Valentine and Terror Train so well.
The son of a wealthy local businessman returns to his hometown after receiving a letter from his younger sister that begs for help. Upon arrival, he learns that his sibling has disappeared (brutally murdered in the pre-credits) and asks a stripper to help to locate her. Unbeknownst to them, her murder was the first at the hands of a vicious psychopath that is butchering local hookers.
I have been collecting slasher movies for longer than I care to remember and as the list on a Slash above shows clearly, I’ve worked hard to uncover a share of the hidden ‘gems’. I didn’t know that this even existed until fairly recently and I was quite surprised that I’d never come across it before. American Nightmare is a misleading title in more ways than one, because the film was actually a Canadian production that was shot in Toronto and it plays like a European Giallo. It has very little in common with Slashers from the US and this is most obvious in the disguise for the killer and characterisation of the key players. We do have a final girl, but she’s no Laurie Strode. In fact, she’s a stripper, which is an unusual touch for a film of this style.
Another way that it feels more closely aligned to its European counterparts is in its excessive use of sexual psychology as a backbone for the story. The victims are all degenerates of the kinky variety and the motive is one that you’re more likely to find from the films of Southern Europe. McBrearty tries hard to develop a sustainably sleazy tone, but he goes about it the wrong way and the runtime instead becomes needlessly repetitive and in all truth, slightly tedious.
The majority of the female victims are killed whilst in a state of undress and in between there are a lot of scenes that take place at a seedy strip bar. Whilst it makes sense to use this location in order to develop the atmosphere, the director includes long sequences from nude dancers as a form of padding. Now padding, much like ice in a vodka and coke, is something that looks like, feels like and smells like what it is – unnecessary. It doesn’t help that these parts are flatly directed and dull, and whilst I appreciate that bare skin is part of the exploitation package, the choreography was mind-numbing and the girls were not the hottest. At first, I wanted to acknowledge the realism, because let’s face it; bottom-dollar prostitutes are not going to be as beautiful as roses. Needless to say, if you are going to pack your feature with overlong set pieces of chicks whipping off their kit, it may be an idea to at least make them worth watching.
It was also a struggle to relate to the story as neither of the key players shine in any way at all. Staley is fine as the heroine, but she is given very little that makes us want to bond with her, whilst Lawrence Day is colourless and weak in the lead. The majority of the picture is shot with the creativity of a soap opera and lacks any va-va-voom, so the pace remains stagnant for extended periods. This changes drastically when the shadowed psycho gets to work and the killings are surprisingly well executed and mix an unnerving level of brutality with a superb, but sadly underused score from Paul Zaza. One of the later murders is almost unwatchable due to the visible suffering of the victim and at times it almost feels like these parts are too good to be have been shot by the same guy that has bored us rigid during the development of the characters and the mystery.
I didn’t manage to work out the identity of the maniac, but this is one of those films where I did think it may well be her, but then I kept changing my mind as the plot unravelled. I am not sure if this can really be credited as great screenwriting though, as it was hardly a shock once the big unmasking scene came around. I remained eager to see who the sadistic slayer was though and I guess that’s what matters most.
What American Nightmare does brilliantly is give depth and a face to a horror film cliché. Think about titles like Maniac, The Burning, Close your eyes and prey and, well, I could go on but the list is endless. Prostitutes in these films are always introduced as lowlifes that can be killed without anyone batting an eyelid, whereas here we are given more of a look into their lifestyles. Some, (but not all surprisingly), want to leave the game behind and they work the streets out of desperation, which makes a refreshing change from the norm. Our hero even gets a scene where he realises his error in pre-judgement and I liked this concept very much.
To be honest though I’m not quite sure what to rate this one. It has some really unique, sharp and brilliant moments, but struggles with the basics a bit too often to be a classic. I think it could be so much better if it were twenty minutes shorter, but at just shy of an hour and a half, it’s hardly Dances with Wolves. It’s a shame, because there’s stuff here that is worthy of Argento, but it’s the little bits, you know, those that aren’t so much fun to film, where we lose that momentum and focus. I’m reminded of my review of Grim Weekend, where I mentioned that the trailer had me fooled into believing that I was in for a good time. It feels here like McBrearty was only interested in the parts that were setup to convey horror and although he does well to build suspense and trepidation at the hardest of times, he strolls through the rest of the movie in first gear like it doesn’t matter.
If you haven’t seen American Nightmare then you should track it down. I just get disappointed when something comes within smelling distance of greatness, but throws it all away in the midriff. With better lighting and pacing, it could have given Curtains a run for its money, as it stands, it sits alongside Evil Judgement as an obscure Canadian picture that hits the right switches, but only on occasion
A Day of Judgement 1981
Directed by: Charles Reynolds
Starring: William Hicks, Harris Bloodworth, Susan Bloodworth
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
This is not just an update, but a complete rewrite of my 2004 review of A Day of Judgement, which is still online. I found out some more information about the production of the picture that I have included here. Enjoy…
A Day of Judgement tells the tale of a small Southern town in the 1920s during the Great Depression, where the local church congregation has been reduced to three elderly pensioners. Father Cage blames himself for the lack of attendance and the townsfolk’s unethical attitudes toward the Ten Commandments. Unable to come to terms with the fact that the villagers would rather live in sin than hear his weekly sermons, the priest packs his horse and cart and heads for the city. On his way out of town, he passes a cloaked figure shouldering a scythe and realises that it’s too late for him to save the sinners from a gory punishment.
Around the 100 year anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, I watched an intriguing documentary that claims that the decaying wreck at the bottom of the North Atlantic is actually her sister, the RMS Olympic. It demonstrated a pretty convincing case to say that the ships were ‘switched’ in a major insurance fraud that went drastically wrong. History shows that the RMS Olympic was a very unlucky vessel after her maiden voyage and that she had an alarming amount of bumps and scrapes in a very short space of time. The worst of those was when the HMS Hawke, a British warship, ploughed into the side of her; an accident that it was rumoured she may never recover from. To make matters worse, the collision was considered to be the RMS Olympic’s fault, so she got no Insurance payout to help towards the large costs of her repairs.
This resulted in a sink or swim (literally) situation for, White Star Line, her and Titanic’s parent company, and it was even said that the Olympic may never pass another board of trade inspection test. There’s no doubt that this is why creative imaginations have found a plausible motive for ‘the switch’: Drown the Olympic in the North Atlantic under the name of her identical sibling and then claim the insurance funds. It sounds far fetched, but who knows…?
Like all good conspiracies, there’s some evidence that backs up these claims and the more I watched of the documentary, the more I began to believe that it could be true. The fact that the letters MP are clearly visible engraved into the hull under the missing characters of the (riveted on top) nameplate TITANIC does speak a thousand words. Such stories are great junk food for the mind and always interesting to read about, but one of the things that really caught my attention, was the fact that JP Morgan, the millionaire banker who had recently purchased White Star Line, claimed ill health and pulled out of the journey just before it set sail. Most of his friends that were due to join the ride also had second thoughts, which is something of an amazing coincidence. Did they perhaps know something that the rest of the passengers didn’t? Or was it an unbelievably fortunate change of plan at the last minute?
Personally, I hate it when plans get changed – most definitely at the last minute – and even if with JP Morgan the alteration saved his life, it’s usually always a bad idea. When this particular film was produced, there was also some strategy switching going on, but unlike what happened with Señor Morgan, I can’t find any logic at all in these choices…
You see, A Day of Judgement began life as a religious drama of the type that were popular on the church circuit in rural America around that time. Director Charles Reynolds was hired to manage the shoot and he did so as per the original script, which included no horror. When he had completed his work, he picked up his paycheque and left to move on to other projects. It was then that one of the financiers got cold feet and thought that the best thing to do was to chuck in a silhouetted killer and market it to the buzzing slasher crowd. They hired someone else to film some additional footage and then sewed it all together like a colour clashing patchwork.
So what we are left with is a bit of a Godfrey Ho. You know Mr Ho, right? I have written about him before in my review of Delirium. He was the master of taking a half finished feature and chucking in outrageous Ninjas in the hope that it might make a profit. He was completely right with that assumption, because they usually always did. Judgement on the other hand snoozes along over its ghastly 101 minute runtime, showing us the town’s residents ‘sinning’ and trying their hardest to look like they’re interested in the lacklustre dialogue, whilst the original church morality plot moves along at the pace of a snail crossing a drawbridge backwards.
The story is populated by an incredibly unappealing group of characters, which includes a greedy bank manager played by William T. Hicks, who true slasher fans may recognise as the lard-ass sheriff from Death Screams. Along with him, we meet a mechanic who wants to send his parents to an old people’s home so that he can use their house for his rendezvous with various females of the species. Then we get to witness the carrying ons of an
adulterous wife and her lover, an elderly grump and a paranoid loaner that believes that his ex has cheated on him. Or something like that. Please excuse any slight inaccuracies, but by this point I was using the ‘matchstick between eyelids’ technique as a weak attempt at staying awake.
Each of the players got twenty or so minutes to show why they should be punished by the grim reaper, before he turns up and *briefly* puts the struggling actors out of their misery in various boring ways. The ‘horror’ after shots that were hastily bolted on lasted for thirty-seconds tops and I counted one hokey decapitation before the matchsticks snapped under the weight of desperation of my eyelids to finally go to sleep.
One thing that did interest me was the use of period costumes, horses, carts and automobiles. These ingredients must’ve eaten heavily into the budget and it’s inexplicable as to why they didn’t utilise those funds on a stronger cast selection. Most of these guys were EO Corp regulars who were little more than ambitious locals. Their lack of experience did cause one or two inadvertently amusing ‘bad movie scenes’ that brightened things up a tad. I especially liked the part when one of the bunnies boogied to some period pop, blissfully unaware of how ‘unfortunate’ that she looked. Sadly, even if it had been Katy Perry belly-dancing in a see-through Arsenal football kit, I still don’t think it could’ve saved this one for me. Whether it be the Titanic or her sister laying in a sorry state two-miles under the surface upon the seabed, this film is in an almost identical condition. Ruined. Unsalvageable. Kaput.
Unless you are a sadist and enjoy boredom as a form of torture, there is very little here for you to bother with. Oh and by the way, the ‘day of judgement’ takes place over a week or more. If you have taken a caffeine overdose and *still* can’t get to sleep, then and only then would this be ideal…
Killer Guise √√
The Burning 1981
Directed by: Tony Maylam
Starring: Brian Matthews, Brian Becker, Jason Alexander
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Tony Maylam’s The Burning is one of the most notorious non-franchise slashers of all time. Even before pre production had begun in the summer of 1980, the movie had an incredible buzz surrounding it. Enough so in fact that superstar horror FX maestro Tom Savini rejected the chance to return to the Friday the 13th series for Steve Miner’s classic sequel and instead took this project for a lesser salary.
Of all the peak period genre entries, none can boast the depth in terms of personnel that was put together here. Alongside the aforementioned magic of Savini, the cast included Jason Alexander, Ned Eisenberg and Oscar winners Fisher Stevens and Holly Hunter. The grim and unique score came from former Yes keyboardist, Rick Wakeman and directorial duties went to Tony Maylam, who at the time had been predicted for big things after his work on rock band Genesis’ outstanding concert video from 1977.
There can be little doubt that the hype and quality in recruitment was down to an early example of the skills of production partnership Harvey and Bob Weinstein, whose company Miramax films would go on to become one of the most successful entertainment brands in Hollywood over the next three decades. This was the first feature length motion picture to be released under that brand and thereafter, they would go on to distribute over fifty films, including classics such as The Crying Game, Pulp Fiction and even Wes Craven’s Scream. If that wasn’t enough, then can you believe that the script was co-written by future Paramount Pictures CEO Brad Grey? Astonishing…
After a prank goes wrong, a sadistic camp caretaker returns to the site where the accident took place, looking for revenge. Armed with a shiny pair of shears, Cropsy begins to stalk a group of counsellors with mutilation on his mind…
In the UK, The Burning was one of the first entries to join the video nasty list and it received perhaps higher persecution for the fact that Thorn-EMI accidentally released the full uncut print instead of the censored copy that the BBFC had cleared. The tapes were impounded and destroyed, but bizarrely, Thorn-EMI were more fortunate than David Grant who was sent to prison for doing the exact same thing when he distributed a longer version of the film Blood Splash a year later. I paid an absolute fortune for an unedited version of this when I was a nipper and it was a mistake as the cassette had an infuriating line running through the middle, which made it almost as bad as just sticking to the 18 rated VHS. Watching it now though, on the BlueRay pre-screener that I was sent, is a glorious experience and the film looks as if it could have been a production from the last decade. The masters have obviously been well looked after and playing it on my Plasma allowed me to turn out the lights and almost feel like I was in the cinema in 1981.
Maylam attempts the John Carpenter methodology of slowly generating an undertone of dread that boils along in the background and then attacks like a shark in the places when the killer strikes. A great example of this is the infamous ‘Raft Massacre’ sequence, which boasts an almost perfect build up. Wakeman’s scoring warns us that something is about to happen, but the camera never reveals enough to let us be sure. When the loon finally strides on to the screen, the bloodletting is quick, brutal and graphic. To this day, you can count on one hand the amount of times in slasher cinema that an antagonist has taken out so many victims in one fell swoop. Tom Savini proves once again here why he was the go to guy for the most realistic special effects back in the overkill period of the slasher cycle.
What I like about the script is that it spends time developing its characters and their performances really add the necessary realism that makes what happens later seem all the more shocking. Jason Alexander steals every scene as a quick-witted camper, whilst Brian Matthews, Leah Ayers and Ned Eisenberg were solid and flawless in their roles. The dialogue and banter works not only to add fun to the parts where the horror takes a backseat, but also to develop a genuine level of believability in the set up and I found it easy to forget that I was watching a group of actors. The screenplay also separates itself from the multitude of its genre brethren by having a ‘final boy’ instead of the usual heroine left alone to face the marauding maniac. The thing is that despite the fact that Brian Becker does a good job with the role, the decision is a risk that just doesn’t pay off.
The Burning has become a true cult classic and has legions of admirers in not only slasher but also horror movie circles. Personally though, I think that it is slightly overrated and perhaps undeserving of so much notoriety. Despite its visible slickness, it lacks a real cutting edge in its moments of terror. Whilst the gore is great and almost like a snuff film in places, the murder sequences lack jump scares or suspense and there’s very little true tension. This is most evident in the conclusion, which I found to be really disappointing. Our hero heads up with an axe to take on the boogeyman and we’re expecting at least a fight. There’s a revelation that builds up a deserving target, at least in the eyes of our nut job caretaker, but Maylam’s attempts at prolonging the money shot are overwrought. In the end it’s more ‘was that it?’ than ‘oh yeah that’s it!’ if you get what I mean. Whilst the notorious ‘Raft Massacre’ is magnificent in terms of the excellence of the make-up FX and it’s an all round great postcard of slasher genre splatter, has anyone ever wondered how it might have looked had it not been SO rapidly edited?
As I highlighted earlier, the script doesn’t bother with a traditional female heroine and instead develops a male geeky type guy in her place. The thing is though we are not talking about a loveable mummy’s boy here. Instead, he is conveyed as an unlikeable pervert and it’s just too hard to bond with him or even want him to survive. It’s funny because before this, we watched The Prowler and Joseph Zito opted for a conventional lead character there and the difference is impossible not to notice. When Vicky Dawson was trying her darnedest to fend off the pitch folk clenching maniac, my partner shouted, “Go on girl!” But there was never any chance of the Mrs doing the same thing here. We ended up saying that Todd should leave Cropsy to get on with it and save himself instead of risking his life for the dweeby Alfred.
I have regular conversations with you guys and girls about these slasher films and I know that not all of you will agree with my view. That’s the beauty of the genre though; everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Tom Savini delivers on the goo-o-rama, there are some nice performances, it’s beautifully produced and Rick Wakeman’s score is a masterpiece. If I could however take maybe 15% of its reputation and give it to Nightmare at Shadow Woods, I would feel a lot better about the whole thing. Tony Maylam’s biggest film after this was Split Second with Rutger Hauer. Maybe this picture would have been better if Steve Miner had also opted not to work on Friday the 13th Part 2 and followed his friend Tom over to Camp Blackfoot? Just a thought…
The Dorm That Dripped Blood 1981
aka Pranks aka Death Dorm
Directed by: Stephen Carpenter and Jeffrey Obrow
Starring: Laurie Lapinski, Stephen Sachs, Daphne Zuniga
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Many of the slasher films from the early eighties were made by filmmakers with minimal experience who were looking to land their first big break. Whenever I get the chance to speak to crew members from that period, I notice that there’s usually always a unique story about how they secured funding or what corners they cut to get the feature released. None of those that I’ve heard though startled me quite as much as what I found out about The Dorm that Dripped Blood, which is one of my favourites of the golden age.
I was sure that lurking behind the scenes here was a fat cat producer with a wad of notes and a hunger to cash in on the slasher craze. It turns out though that this was nothing more than a thesis project from three ambitious students of the University of California. After seeing John Carpenter’s seminal Halloween at the cinema, Jeffrey Obrow, Stephen Carpenter and Stacey Giachino decided that they wanted to have a crack at making something similar. With minimal funding they put together a team of up and comers, which resulted in a launch pad for a few notable careers. Christopher Young was studying music on a campus that was situated close to Obraw and Carpenter, whilst twenty-four year old make-up artist Matthew Mungle had just began pitching his junior portfolio to prospective employers. Years after they completed this film, Young would become one of the most popular composers of recent times and Mungle would win an Academy award and gain a further three nominations.
The shoot took place mainly during the December of 1980 and Obrow and his crew built their entire schedule around when the equipment that was provided by UCLA was available for use. The locations were all discovered in and around the campus and the majority of cast members were unknowns or eager friends. Their coming together resulted in a superb example of the genre’s strengths when handled with ambition
A group of youngsters stay behind over the Christmas period to help clean and disassemble a dorm that is about to be closed down. Little do they know that they are sharing the location with a brutal killer…
I came across the film Pranks (as it was known in the UK) when I was growing up in London. Alongside The Driller Killer, Night of the Demon and Madhouse it had been quickly added to the DPP list and classified as a video nasty. Although the intention of the British government had been to do the exact opposite, the tag gave the film a cult classic reputation and it was passed around on bootleg format with the added rebellious attraction of its unlawful status. A younger kid called Dean from across the street had a genuine copy that his dad had rescued from the claws of the Video Nasty campaign. In the end he sold to me for £10, which was a lot of money for an eleven year old child, but I wanted it so badly I would have paid £50.
Dorm is without a shadow of a doubt one of the grittiest of the period slashers and in my opinion, one of the most underrated. Despite not boasting the finesse of a My Bloody Valentine or Dressed to Kill, it succeeds by sacrificing an atmosphere of campy fun and replacing it with unrelenting grimness. From the first moment on screen – when a guy is brutally murdered before the credits – the audience is made aware that they are watching a horror movie and there are no real attempts to alter the mood. I have always believed that in terms of structure for a slasher, you need to open with a shock, spend no more than thirty-five minutes on plot development with maybe the odd killing to maintain the tone. Follow that with a suspenseful mid-section, whilst the body count mounts, and then leave a good twenty-five minutes for the showdown/unmasking scene with the protagonist. Obraw’s screenplay gets that pretty much spot on and despite a few hollow moments that could have perhaps been much shorter, Christopher Young’s fantastic score (one of the best of the genre) sustains the energy.
Watching the newly released director’s cut has given Matthew Mumble’s gore effects the stage that they deserve and on BlueRay, they look superb. Hearing about the minimalistic funding that he was given to achieve these results somehow makes them seem all the better and in its entirety, Dorm can rightly be acknowledged as one of the most gruesome of its kind. There’s a fairly well-constructed mystery with red-herrings popping up in the right places and even if the killer’s revelation is not expertly conveyed (the motive is non-existent) it leads to a bold final scene, which was unique at the time of filming.
Perhaps what the feature lacks the most is a group of well developed personalities that we can bond with. The players here are wafer thin and therefore we never feel particularly intrigued by their dialogue or sympathetic towards their plight. In film’s such as Iced, Evil Laugh or Friday the 13th Part II, memorable faces such as Carl, Barney and Ted added some comedic warmth to the proceedings and make us care more about the results of the oncoming horror. Here though, Laurie Lapinski gave us a one-dimensional and extremely unapproachable final girl, whilst the rest of the cast were never offered anything authentic to escape their stereotype. Soon to be superstar Daphne Zuniga gets no chance to impress on her five-minute feature debut. It has to be said though that the kill scene that sees her get gruesomely mutilated along with her parents has been written in to slasher folklore as one of the best sequences of the cycle. Whilst it could be argued that the lower amount of definition in the characters that guide us through the story give the film a more ‘complete’ feel of out and out horror, I couldn’t help but wonder how good this could have been with a tad more depth put into the protagonist and her co-stars.
Perhaps the most impressive thing of all is that despite the complete lack of experience of those involved, Dorm is one of most notorious pieces of the initial slasher phase. It is a brutal, scary, gory and atmospheric slasher that engulfs you in its storm of underlying gloom. It overcomes its obviously raw level of filmmaking technicality to be a real treat for horror audiences. I thoroughly recommend it.
Final Girl √√