Don’t Open ‘Til Christmas 1984
Directed by: Edmund Purdom
Starring: Edmund Purdom, Kelly Baker, Alan Lake
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Don’t open ’till Christmas was the middle of the three slasher flicks from the short-lived Dick Randall/Steve Minasian production partnership and by far the most bizarre. Most of it was shot in August 1982, but after various creative disagreements, it was shelved, whilst extra footage was filmed and then spliced together some two years later.
After three potentials rejected the script, it was set to be the debut of Edmund Purdom in the director’s chair, but he soon realised that he was way above his head and so handed the steering wheel over to the story’s writer, Derek Ford. Ford managed a number of scenes, but was soon fired from the project, so Randall drafted in someone who had experience of taking over the hot seat in a jumbled production, namely Ray Selfe. He was also given the unenviable job of editing the footage and making some kind of cinematic sense out of the misguided work of three separate visions, which was an incredibly difficult task. He was joined by Alan Birkinshaw who at that time had just wrapped up filming on eighties cult feature Killer’s Moon and to add more confusion, he also shot some parts and dabbled with the story. Many scenes failed to make the final cut and it is perhaps credit to Selfe that he managed to put enough together to get the film released.
Randall’s previous production, Pieces, had been a relatively successful entry and the mission statement here was most definitely to aim for more of the same. Make no bones about it, this is pure slasher by the numbers and has been given a Christmas gimmick for the chance of a big festive audience and a longer life expectancy. But what this flick does do differently is instead of having a maniac in a Santa suit killing off people, which had already been done, they turned it around to give us a masked psycho killing guys wearing that distinctive clothing.
After a Father Christmas is killed during a fancy dress party, the victim’s daughter and her boyfriend get involved in the investigation. They believe that the Police aren’t doing all they can with the mystery and before long, the killer begins to target them. With only hours remaining until the big day and Santas dropping like flies, who will be able to solve the mystery?
You know what? Don’t open ’till Christmas plays like it was the result of a few opposing personalities that had thrown contrasting ideas in to a saucepan and hoped for the best. Hold on a minute; that’s exactly what happened! Ok, so seriously, this one is a bit like singing the words of Living’ on a Prayer over the backing track of Sweet Child o Mine at a karaoke bash. Before I was informed about its production woes, I just assumed that it was a poorly paced and rushed released mess, but now I know about what happened, it’s easy to see the reasons why it’s such a patchwork. Characters pop up here and there without any real structure and some scenes, like the hilarious twist revealing phone call between Kate Briosky and the housekeeper were definitely added in a lazy attempt to string the plot together. George Dugdale, the director of Slaughter High and the hubby of Caroline Munro, was involved in this project and got his wife to turn up for a cameo in an obvious attempt to add some experience to the cast. She is on screen for two minutes tops (singing an awful disco oddity) and then disappears completely, almost as quickly as the story loses focus. It all starts very well, with three murders in ten minutes, but from then on the momentum just vanishes and the fun comes to a screeching halt. It’s hard to tell what was in the original concept and what wasn’t, but the film is something of an enigma. It spends ages building up a possible final girl, only to brutally slaughter her and bring on a substitute who doesn’t fit the traditional characteristics about half way through. I guess that Randall took the real reasons that an interesting venture fell apart to the grave with him in 1996.
Christmas plays host to the worst chase sequence anywhere ever. The location is immense (The London Dungeon no less), the killer has an outstanding guise, but it’s just so poorly handled that it is far more comedic than it is suspenseful. In fact, despite boasting a huge body count, none of the killings are creepy, even though they most definitely have the potential to be just that. The movie does its best to keep you guessing and the unmasking scene is ok, but to be honest, the whole thing is such a crack handed knot that it could have been anyone. Hell, it could have been you!
The film aims to come across as sleazy and therefore sacrifices the fun factor that’s usually abundant in eighties slashers. One overweight Santa gets castrated in a grimy urinal whilst another gets his face burned off on a grill for roasting chestnuts. The gore effects by Peter Litton are surprisingly good, but got the movie in a hell of a lot of trouble with UK censors and I was only able to see the full version because I picked it up in Spain. It also has a rather haunting score; a kind of eerie take on Jingle Bells, which if used properly could have set a macabre environment. I also thought that the various masks that the killer used were pretty cool, especially the one in the picture below. Whether it was intentional or not, the atmosphere conveyed here is one of depression and the film, much like Scrooge, ignores any attempts at festive spirit, which means it is definitely not one that I could recommend to be watched this time of the year.
By far the worst of Randall’s eighties output, it gives the viewer as much of a headache as I’m sure that it gave the people involved in the concept. I like seeing London as a backdrop and lines such as, “Get away, go on clear off!” in a Bermondsey tone were amusing, but I can’t find much here to warrant a purchase. The grammatical mistake on the title card (dont instead of don’t) is only the start of the incompetence and the film never escapes its clutches thereafter.
Not one of the merriest decorations on the ceiling, you would be better to deck the halls with Black Christmas and Silent Night Deadly Night instead.
Final Girl √
Slaughter High 1986
aka April Fool’s Day
Directed by: George Dugdale
Starring: Caroline Munro, Carmine Lannaccone, Simon Scuddamore
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Producer Steve Minasian certainly had an extreme flirtation with the slasher genre when it was making fortunes during the peak years. He was involved (albeit minutely) with the production of the original Friday the 13th feature, before forming a partnership with exploitation king Dick Randall, which brought to the table three interesting entries. The Spanish/American produced Mil Gritos Tiene La Noche is a Grindhouse treat and one of my all time favourites. Its follow up, the troubled Don’t Open ’til Christmas, was a mangled beast, which took three directors to finally get to a (barely) passable state and still didn’t make a lick of sense. Slaughter High would be his third and final entry; and fittingly, it plays almost like a tribute to the cycle that he’d been so heavily involved with.
Caroline Munro returns to what she does best – well, gets most work from. Yes, she was the beauty that was stalked by Joe Spinnell in both Maniac and Fanatic; and she also appeared briefly in the aforementioned Don’t Open ’till Christmas. Having discovered a themed-calendar date that had not yet been knifed/slashed/pick-axed, the movie was initially going to be called April Fool’s Day. This was until Frank Manucuso Jnr – the producer most famous for his work with the later Friday the 13ths – beat them to it and secured the title for his 1986 slasher parody. Funnily enough there are copies of Slaughter High in Japan that were released as April Fool’s Day, which only adds to the confusion…
Marty Rantzen is a school nerd that suffers a constant barrage of bullying from a troupe of (middle-aged) students, which includes Carol (Caroline Munro) and the joker of the pack Skip (Carmine Lannaccone). As if you hadn’t already guessed, one April fool’s day the pranks go too far and Marty ends up horrendously disfigured and transferred to an asylum for the rest of his life.
You wanted by the book plotting? Well check this out: Five years later, the culprits are all mysteriously invited to a school reunion on their now abandoned campus, but no one knows who sent the invitations. Almost as soon as they arrive, things take a turn for the sinister as the caretaker is nailed to the door by a psycho in a Jester’s mask! Has Marty returned to seek revenge on those who taunted him? Or is someone else cooking up a reason for mass execution?
For reasons that are hard to fathom, the British crew behind Slaughter High pretend that the film is American, which explains why the accents sound as genuine as a Rolex on a market stall and switch between the UK and the US more times in 85 minutes than British Airways does in a year. Ex-Bond babe Munro slots straight back in perfectly as the scream-a-lot final girl, even if by 1985, she was looking a little too mature to be 21. I’d love to know how she managed to wake up early in the morning with perfect hair and make-up; – but hey, I guess we’re not supposed to ask questions like that. The rest of the cast seem too wrapped up in the bad-ness of their accents to care about acting, but Simon Scuddamore and Carmine Lannaccone kept up the camp spirit quite well. The most obscure thing about Slaughter High is undoubtedly Dick Randall’s brief cameo appearance that has to be seen to be believed. Surrounded by posters from his previous ‘hits’ (hey, there’s Pieces!), and looking exactly how you’d expect him too, he proves that his flair for dramatics was equally as unique as his filmography.
We are treated to a few really inventive murders that include such novelty set-ups as: disembowelment by an engine, exploding intestines and death by drowning in a bog of mud.(?) Perhaps the dumbest of the bunch was when one girl decides to take a bath (in an abandoned school) after the blood from her friend’s ‘bursting guts’ sprays all over her face. She climbs in to the tub and turns on the taps, but the water that’s gushing through the faucet is laden with sulphuric acid. So, does she simply step out of the bath and save herself? Or does she remain seated until she’s melted to a bloodied skeleton? Well, what d’ya reckon…?
Despite being credited only to George Dugdale, the film was co-directed by Mark Ezra, and both handled different parts of the shoot. I don’t think they really did enough with the horror side of the movie though and I felt it could have done with some more stalking set pieces or chase sequences. The efforts at jump-scares were too slowly framed and the film never really builds enough of a rhythm in its flow when the action starts. Harry Manfredini cuts and pastes his Friday the 13th score, which does keep things moving, but at times I got the feeling I was watching a (low budget) sequel instead of a completely different movie.
The saddest thing I learned about Slaughter High, is the fact that actor Simon Scuddamore tragically took his own life shortly before the film hit the shelves for release. It’s a real shame, because he was one of the more motivated performers on display and maybe could’ve developed a career. The reason(s) for his suicide are unknown, but watching him play the role with his tongue stuck firmly in cheek and clearly disguising the problems that he may/may not have been suffering at the time makes his performance look far more credible. It also gives the film a somewhat morbid air of mystery as to why he chose to end his life at a time when he should’ve been celebrating.
Slaughter High lacks the polish of the flicks it emulates, but there’s still a great deal of fun to be had with the tongue-in-cheekness of the whole thing. The unrated versions give some pretty good splatter and I think the Jester mask is one of the cycle’s best. You can’t ask for much more than a hulking killer, an experienced scream queen, some bloody deaths and a plot that doesn’t bore whilst not taking itself too s
seriously. The net result is a movie that succeeds in doing exactly what it set out to. It’s as routine as brushing your teeth, but those are the routines none of us should be without.
Also keep an eye out for Slaughter High that’s currently in production with a targeted release date of September 2013. From what I understand, it is not a direct remake, but it has the same title, so it must be a tribute of some kind… Update from Feb 2013: It looks like that Slaughter High has disappeared or been withdrawn, but a Spanish film that’s currently in the editing suite called ‘Los Innocentes’ has a very similar concept
Final Girl √√
Directed by: William Lustig
Starring: Joe Spinell, Carolyn Munro, Abigail Clayton
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Over one century ago (1897 to be exact) in the dingy back streets of Montmartre, Paris, an eccentric ex-secretary to a Police commissioner named Oscar Metenier, opened the Theatre du Grand Guignol. For 65 years, groups of performers staged one-act plays that depicted graphic scenes of murder, mutilation and torture. Famous works by authors such as Charles Dickens and James Hadley Chase were adapted for Grand Guignol and made into, some might say, horrific gore-laden masterpieces. People’s morbid curiosities kept the shows ever popular, all the way up until the Nazis invaded France during World War II. Perhaps because the French population was experiencing true horrors of their own, the urge to see such events portrayed on stage, quite obviously became a lot less alluring. The theatre never recovered, and it finally closed its doors for the last time in 1962. William Lustig’s Maniac is basically Grand Guignol for the cinematic audiences of the eighties. A movie that viewers of a quainter disposition will describe as depraved, demoralising and redundantly mean spirited; while others have touted its story telling as artistic, ballsy and daring.
Although it’s often labelled as a formulaic stalk and slash offering, it is actually a member of the sub, sub-genre that differentiates itself from the Halloween and Friday the 13th created format. Along with Nightmares in a Damaged Brain, Mardi Gras Massacre, and Don’t go in the House; Maniac offers something refreshing, by giving the killer characterisation and making him more than just a loony in a mask with a machete.
The plot portrays the life of Frank Zito, an insane and stammering psychological mess of a man, with more than a few severe problems upstairs. His story unravels around his descent into madness, which stems from his seclusion and isolation from the outside world. He is a lonely, redoubtable character, with no friends or companionship. He spends his time alone with just his fragmented mind to torment him. His desperation to feel accepted by civilisation results in him creating his own ‘family’ from female mannequins. To add realism to their beings and to make them as human-like as could be possible, he furnishes their heads with the scalps of women that he butchers remorselessly. In the first ten minutes, an unfortunate prostitute is ruthlessly slaughtered for no apparent reason and the misogyny continues all the way through the movie. Nurses, models and innocent bystanders are gorily slain for nothing more than the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The creepiest thing about these murders is the fact that Zito has no apparent understanding of the results of his actions. He reads headlines, which describe the feelings of a city left in fear by his spate of madness and he watches news updates that inform us of the aftermath of his bloodthirsty rein. His reaction however is non-existent. He shows no knowledge of any wrongdoing, almost like he is unaware that he commits such atrocities. His mental downfall takes a U-turn, when he meets up with Anna D’Antoni (Caroline Munro) a photographer that attracts his attention for the first time when she snaps him wondering through a park. We finally get to see a thoroughly different side to his character: – a romantic, insecure personality that’s been buried beneath years of self-inflicted misery and emotional torture. There is a constant battle between two separate personalities that rages inside Zito’s mind and Anna’s fate depends upon whether the good or evil side emerges victoriously…
The opening sequence stays true to its stalk and slash counterparts, as the masked, heavy breathing Zito kills a loving couple on a beach. Lustig describes the scene as homage to Jaws, only this time the monster is out of the sea and on land, thus explaining the beach setting. It’s a well-handled commencement, with Savini adding the magic that he is most reputed for and Robert Lindsay’s competent photography creates energy that prevails throughout the whole movie. Body count material is introduced without any characterisation or development, but it can be argued that the story revolves around Zito and to him victims are only objects or playthings anyway.
I have always considered Bill Lustig to be a highly underrated filmmaker. Maniac Cop was yet another great movie, although I would consider this to be one of his best – probably because he was relatively unknown when he worked it. The parts that were filmed inside the killer’s flat are shot in complete silence, which effectively adds to the feeling of seclusion and abandonment. It’s like the viewer is inside the character’s apartment, but also inside his own remote world, where his loneliness has degenerated into an unrelenting insanity. It is added moments like these that make Maniac all the more creepy. The subway scene adds some awe-inspiring suspense, as Frank stalks a nurse through the station. Lustig does well to keep the atmosphere tense and the viewer is always aware that something is about to happen, meaning there is never any allowance for comfort in the fact that any of the characters will escape to safety. He also manages at least two effective jump-scares. The final Carrie-esque jolt is particularly memorable and adds the perfect finale. Jay Chattaway provides a superb score to accompany the visuals and Lorenzo Marinelli’s editing is equally impressive.
Although you could never call Joe Spinnell a fantastic dramatic performer by any of his pre-Maniac work, Frank Zito (named as a nod to Joseph Zito the director of The Prowlerand friend to Lustig and Savini) was undoubtedly the part he was put on this planet to play. It’s a convincing performance that allowed the actor to immerse himself deep into something that he had researched thoroughly and accurately and he gives his character a vivid portrait of realism that was necessary to create the child’s nightmare-like quality that the movie possesses. Spinnell is Maniac and Maniac is Spinnell, there’s no doubt about it. It was his signature role. It’s impossible to imagine another character actor fitting the bill so perfectly. Not only does he play the part; he also looks and sounds it too.
He wasn’t the only one that hit a career high under Lustig’s direction though; Caroline Munro gave her most realistic portrayal too. Her career had reached it’s cliff-top in 1980, before she became a scream queen in less memorable flicks such as Slaughter High and Faceless, which would supplement her income well into motherhood. This also offered a chance to break away from the bikini-clad bimbo roles that she had been given up until that point and it gave her an opportunity to try something a little different. I strongly respect her refusal to do any nudity, which cost her a contract with Hammer Horror in the early seventies. It takes a strong woman to reject such offers for the sake of her modesty and Munro proved that she was just that. It’s worth noting that the pair were reunited two years later forFanatic (aka The Last Horror Film), which lacked the gritty edge and invitingly sleazy surroundings of its predecessor, but attempted to cash-in on the fame that Lustig’s film had earned from its gruesome reputation.
Maniac was filmed on super 16 mm and like the best slashers from this period it was shot for the most miniscule of budgets (‘under a million dollars’). A lot of the on-location work was staged illegally, without any insurance or authorised permission. In speaking, Lustig anecdotes about the exploding head scene (no less than Tom Savini’s, by the way), where they had to fire a shotgun through the windscreen of a car and then make a quick getaway, before the Police arrived to investigate the gunshot!
Munro was given only one-day to rehearse the script before starting work, due to replacing Dario Argento’s wife of the time, Daria Nicolodi. Admittedly, it does seem pretty strange that a woman with a name as Italian as Anna D’ Antoni, would be played by an English Rose; but she does a good enough job and is truly a sight to behold. Many, MANY countries rejected this movie on the grounds of its unnecessary violence towards women, including the censors here in the UK, who made sure to add it to the DPP list almost immediately. The Philippines’ board of film review was so outraged by what they discovered that they told the producers to take it to Satan instead of their country and went on to describe it as ‘un-entertaining’ and ‘unfit for Human consumption’! Of course, knowledge of those monstrosities, only made it seem all the more curious to youngsters that had heard such tales of unruly degradation and were eager to check it out for themselves. This helped to give the flick a massive cult following. Upon release, it became immensely popular, although it was heavily criticised for its brutal violence. Spinnell said that the blood was never on screen long enough for his creation to be considered too gruesome. He lied. – There are parts of the movie that are incredibly gory and blood-soaked. You’ll find decapitations, scalpings and dismemberment – if you can name a gory way to slaughter a female, then you’ll find it somewhere in here. Maniac is one of the only video-nasties that have managed to retain its shock factor, even after twenty-four years.
I saw an edited copy of this in the mid-nineties and was left totally unimpressed. Perhaps my attentions were elsewhere or I was expecting something more? I can’t be sure, but last night, watching it once again for this review, I found myself captivated. There are flaws, yes for certain. It’s unlikely that a beauty as striking, as Anna would give the time of day to a misfit like Zito in the first place and the end sequence is a little bizarre to say the least. But all niggles are forgiven when you acknowledge the effort that has been put into making this production as realistically as they possibly could.
Credit has to be given to Spinnell for believing in the project and his dedication and research into serial killers deserves recognition. Maniac has earned itself another fan and I believe that it deserves to be seen. There has never been, and probably never will be, another slasher movie so depraved and disturbing; so grab a copy whilst you’ve got the chance. It’s an innovative and daring take on the standard stalk and slash genre, which succeeds because it is just that.
Final Girl √√√