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: √
Directed by: Daniel Liatowitsch David Todd Ocvirk
Starring: Amy Webber, Donny Terranova, Nichole Pelerine
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
So what is there to say about things that emerged during the noughties, eh? Well we didn’t get many life altering inventions, but for sure social networking and reality television became the media sensations of the last decade. Whether it be struggling stars trying to prevent that last nail entering their career coffin on, ‘I’m a celebrity, get me out of here!’ or audacious personalities swimming in a pool of insecurities and trying to grab their fifteen minutes on ‘Big Brother’, the viewing stats for this rubbish were astronomical. It was the latter that proved to be the source code for this post-Scream slasher yarn, which set up a reality TV (or VHS) backdrop just before that style of interactive entertainment took the entire world by storm.
Five youngsters respond to an advert in a local paper asking for ambitious extroverts to be boarded up in a house for five days and have all their emotions and activities filmed. Almost as soon as they arrive however, they are locked in with a sadistic faceless killer and no chance to escape…
There was so much junk that came out in the late nineties and attempted to cash in on the new wave of slashers that it is really refreshing when you uncover an effort that’s even slightly above average. Kolobos however is much more than that – it’s an intelligent, stylish and creepy entry that has been bizarrely overlooked. It recalls the elements that make up the greatest titles of the category, including a good mystery, stylish direction, superb gore and a creepy tone.
The film is made by people who appreciate the genre and at the same time acknowledge its weaknesses. One of the personas is an actress who appeared in the fictional slasher movie franchise, ‘The Slaughterhouse Factor’. The group sit down to watch the films one after another and mock the poor continuity, cheesy deaths and silly plot and they could, in effect, be watching any number of dumb eighties titles. It is this recognition however that allows those same characters when they become trapped with the psychopathic killer, to do the right things, like sticking together and working in tandem to escape. The film has a somewhat surreal nightmarish quality, which is brought about by blurry imagery and a haunting score from William Kidd. The inspiration here seems to stem more from Argento than Craven and there’s some stuff that even he would be proud of. When they realise that they are imprisoned and become locked down, the directors use flashing red and white lights to illuminate the darkness and it builds a great environment of gothic horror. The house is layered with ingenious death traps that are triggered when one of the victims crosses an area that is covered with mission impossible-style red lasers. This means that every step they take could be the wrong one and it helps add to the tension
The realism portrayed in the way the actors handle the situations of impending doom is what sets this apart. They try desperately to survive and show emotions of paranoia and fear in how they have become the victims of unprovoked murder. Could one of these people that they just met and hardly know be responsible for the sudden deaths? The first slaughter takes you by surprise because it’s so out of the blue and from then on the gore is spread thick and fast. The effects are excellent and include an eye impalement, disembowelment and an acid shower that’s similar to the one from Whodunit. There’s some tight pulsating sequences and a sense of the macabre in all the aspects of terror and as the characters have been so well-developed, there’s more of an effect on the audience when they die.
We are treated to a couple of decent jump scares and an exciting final battle and the cast do a good job at developing themselves. I especially thought a lot of Amy Weber who is a good actress and brought to mind Jennifer Love Hewitt with more than just the fact that they look quite similar. They even managed to get Linnea Quigley to turn up for a cameo. On top of that it even has the odd cheesy scene, like when they all head in to the corner and begin grooving under a ‘disco ball’ for what seems like no apparent reason.
Kolobos starts very well, but doesn’t manage to keep the suspense at the same level all the way through. It just seems to throw too much of everything in to the final forty minutes, which lessens the impact a tad. I was also extremely disappointed with the final twist, which was smart but a bit of a cheat and totally unnecessary. I feel the movie would have been better if it finished on the seventy-three minute mark, but it does leave a bit of an ambiguous finale, which plays on your mind. Was it real or all a dream?
This is by no means perfect, but very few slasher movies ever have been. It is still one of the best titles of the last twenty years and in the top fifteen of all time. Superbly directed with style, panache, a fast pace and a great cast; Kolobos is a titan of slasher styling and should most definitely be added to your collection.
The strangest thing that I learned after watching this is that neither of the two directors have gone on to anything else. This is really bizarre as they showed immense potential here and should have at least been given another opportunity.
Final Girl: √√√
Satan’s Blade 1984
aka Espada Satánica
Directed By: L. Scott Castillo
Starring: Tom Bongiorno, Stephanie Leigh Steel, Paul Batson
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
This will be the second time I have written a review of Satan’s Blade, as it’s a film I watched seven-years ago and rated it under an old user name on the IMDB. As I have said previously, I don’t get as much time to browse my old collection of VHS and as this is not on DVD, it is not one of those that I could convert to MP4 and enjoy on my iPad on the way to work. I have, however, recently had a little bit of time on my hands. Basically my parent in-laws are visiting from sunny Poland for two-weeks and as we only have two bedrooms (one with a single bed), I’m off to my mum’s for a little break. When the cat’s away, the mice will play and all that, so I watched Cards of Death, Moonstalker and Satan’s Blade one after another on my first night of freedom. Oh the debauchery!
Now as I said, I have already had a say on this dirt-cheap but alluring entry, but as the years have passed and my film-knowledge has grown, I have actually noticed that my opinions have changed quite a bit. Of the 700+ slashers that I own, Satan’s Blade always stood out to me, because of the cheesy but intriguing cover, which boasts a skull-faced killer in a cape holding a blade and staring out in to reality as if to say, “buy me young man, I will absolutely terrify you”. To a teenage boy, this was pretty intriguing stuff and back then, these young eyes were unaware of how much hyperbole eighties cheap video companies would add to their VHS covers. It’s actually pretty fun nowadays to look back on the amount of boxes from that time that had absolutely *no* significance to the film contained inside. Nowadays if Apex, Mogul and the like were still distributing movies, ambulance chasing lawyers would have a field-day with the false-advertisement claims. I bought an Argentinian VHS that I found in a shop in Spain, because I also search out most flicks in my country of birth as in general they are unrated and it allows me to see the complete version. In case you are interested, the blurb and tagline on that copy are equally as nonsensical
A group of ski bunnies and a pair of married couples head off to a cabin in the mountains for a weekend break. They soon learn that the site has a murderous past; with the most recent of its victims dying only a few hours earlier. Despite this, they ignore the warnings and book in to their rooms. Before long an unseen maniac begins slicing his way through the visitors one by one. But is there more to the location than meets the eyes?
Watching Satan’s Blade is a bit like hearing ABBA at an elderly relative’s birthday party. You know that its rubbish and you shouldn’t really like it, but as long as no one notices, you secretly do. To be fair there’s an absolute heap of stuff that is easy to criticize here, but what Blade does do well, it does very much so. Atmosphere is one of the hardest things to build for a horror movie, and Castillo manages to give his film a macabre, foreboding and somewhat ruthless feeling throughout. Borrowing heavily from Carpenter’s method of creating a daunting mood from the start, the continuous score – although monotonous – adds to the apprehension. There’s one scene, a dream sequence, which is so skilfully edited and competently shot that it sits quite comfortably alongside Curtains‘ ice skating murder as one of the best of the genre. Seriously, it is THAT good.
There are mountains of minutes of character development where not a lot happens and I’ll get back to that in a bit, but I actually felt sympathy for one or two of the personnel and was even disappointed when a couple of them died. When you consider the fact that ninety-percent of the cast were pretty rancid dramatically, to build audience sympathy is quite an achievement. As I mentioned earlier, the killings feel a lot more mean-spirited here and I think it’s because of their cheap execution (pun intended) and lack of gore. Compared to the majority of its brethren from the same period, Blade is extremely light in the blood department, but it makes up for that in the detail of the death sequences. The victims scream and struggle for their last breath and it’s much more unsettling than a gooey decapitation. So much so that the BBFC (or the film Gestapo as they were known back then) saw fit to cut out three and a half minutes of footage.
Also check out the bank heist, which seems to have been included for no other reason (in terms of plot benefit) than the director wanting to include a bank heist in his movie. It’s fast, direct and pretty mean-spirited, even though the cashier could have prevented everything by simply closing the door. It’s a very interesting way to start a standard slasher movie and I thought it just about worked.
The problems haven’t gone away over time however and the film still struggles drastically for momentum. If you want to see a ‘horror’ film, then watching bad actors go fishing and talk about ‘passing the bar’ can become very tedious very quickly and structurally the plot suffers. I have read the few comments from the cast that mention constant script re-writes and a lack of vision from the production team, which is quite apparent throughout. I find it hard to believe that there was no finished script, but hey if the cast members say so that must be the case. – Unless they’re a little bitter at not getting any money after this was released???
So Satan’s Blade is still not really worth tracking down unless you’re an obsessed enthusiast (hey, like me!). You have to question why the producer didn’t just film this on cheaper 16mm instead of 32 and invest some more cash in the production. An average genre entry that had the right ideas but struggled with the execution (yes I am using the same joke twice).
Oh and by the way – I still have *NO* idea what this has to do with Satan…?
Final Girl √√
Black Christmas 1974
Directed by: Bob Clark
Starring: Margot Kidder, John Saxon, Lynne Griffin
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Long before Jamie Blanks turned popular urban legends into a theme for his routine slasher, Urban Legend; director Bob Clark took one of the most vigorously touted of those fables and created a genre staple that would become the forerunner of the stalk and slash cycle. Comparisons can obviously be drawn between this and Halloween, including notorious but unconfirmed reports that Carpenter’s film was in fact based upon an un-produced concept that Clark had earlier initiated as a sequel to this 1974 sleeper. Both efforts certainly have a lot in common with one another, including two excellent steady-cam openings, which put the viewer in the killer’s shoes as he enters his ‘soon to be’ scene of a crime. On the ‘making of’ feature for the 25th anniversary of Halloween, perhaps one commentator is fairly unjust when he states that it was that movie alone that started the excessive use of point of view shots that are so often imitated in horror cinema ever since. Black Christmas was equally as effective with its application of first person cinematography and even though Carpenter had already endorsed the technique in an earlier short from his University days, he was most definitely influenced by what he saw here.
The story concerns a group of sorority sisters that are preparing for their Christmas celebrations in a remote house. They have been receiving bizarre and anonymous calls from what sounds like a group of insane people, although no one takes them seriously at first, believing that they’re just a typical prank from a few of the local town boys. However fears are ignited when one of the students, Claire (Lynne Griffin), doesn’t arrive to meet her father on time and is reported missing. Later a child is found butchered in the park, whilst the loony continues his demented ringing and terrorising the young women. Before long Lieutenant Fuller (John Saxon) realises that there may be a link in the occurrences and asks Jess (Olivia Hussey) to remain close to her phone so that he can trace the line when the lunatic next rings. But will there be anyone left alive when that happens?
Even though this movie is neither graphic, gratuitous nor particularly exploitive by today’s standards, it remains one of the most disturbing and chilling slasher movies ever made. Perhaps as mysteriously alluring as the exploits of Michael Myers and certainly far more alarming than any of its endless imitations could ever hope to be, the killer here simply oozes fear factor. It’s not by the use of the typical methods that have become somewhat old-hat in more recent efforts either. For example, this assassin doesn’t wear a mask, probably doesn’t possess any super-human attributes and may only be threatening towards the female of our species. But his enigmatic ranting and crazy excessive skips between multiple personalities that are portrayed superbly over phone calls, effortlessly allow him to become one of the creepiest wackos ever seen on film. Never has a telephone been implemented as a tool for creating fear so efficiently. There’s something really unsettling as this Jekyll and Hyde argues with his demented alter ego(s). In the midst of his outbursts, he changes his pitch from that of a high female to a deep and aggressive male and then back again, in a manner of pure and unadulterated insanity that really sticks in your throat. He perhaps reaches the most blood-curdling moment when he drops the wacky persona to adopt a civil yet curt voice and mutter once,`I’m going to kill you’. This proves to be the one and only direct threat that he makes in the whole movie.
Where as Michael Myers’ success was brought about by the mystery that surrounded the little that we knew of the true motivations of his character, a similar method has been used here. I won’t write too much in case that you haven’t already seen the film, but the script does a great job of maintaining a mysterious bogeyman. Bob Clark’s talents as a horror director certainly reached their peak with Black Christmas. Helped excessively by some great cinematography and neatly planned lighting effects that often evade the more recent slasher movies, he proved his worth as a genre legend. He used some creative methods to keep the killer obscured from view, whilst not forgetting the fundamental silhouette and shadow play. I am sure that the quality of his work here gave him the springboard to the latter success that he would find in other areas of cinema. If you do predict the twists in the plot, then it’s only because they have be copied so many times since this hit the shelves that they now feel second nature to any slasher fan. It’s important to remember that this was one of the first to use those elements and you must also note how perfectly this holds up against the majority of attempts that have been released up to three decades after.
Some brilliant actors whom themselves would make their own slight impressions on the genre (Margot Kidder: The Clown at Midnight, Lynne Griffin: Curtains and John Saxon: Nightmare Beach and The Babydoll Murders) offer support to a competent lead in Olivia Hussey. Aside from a couple of weak moments she carried the majority of the picture extremely well. Kudos also to the actor(s) that performed the terrorising calls, because their effort to sound as deranged as humanly possible gave the film one of the scariest ingredients of the cycle. We cannot forget to mention Roy Moore and Bob Clark’s dialogue; because without it, the movie certainly would not have been so fearfully memorable.
The slasher genre has gained a reputation over the years for being somewhat over populated by incompetent/amateur filmmakers. But efforts like this, Halloween and House on Sorority Row prove that the category is a necessary ingredient to cinema history when it’s handled properly. This has recently been re-released on DVD with minimal extras but maximum value for money and really does warrant a purchase. There’s not a lot more to be said to convince you, this is a true cult-classic and your collection is poorer without a copy. Maybe next time you are bothered by a crank caller, you’ll be a little more cautious as to how you handle the situation…
Final Girl √√√
Directed by: Fred Olen Ray
Starring: Jo-Ann Robinson, Richard Hench, Roger Maycock
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Looking back that whole video-nasty thing was really just a big anti climax. Kind of like sharing a bed with Angelina Jolie and finding out that she’d just given her vow to a nunnery. In the UK, films like Pranks and Madhouse were reputed to be so vile and depraved that the thought of sitting through one of them felt like stealing your next door neighbor’s car and going banger racing round the block. But when they finally hit shelves some twenty years later it was like, “Oh was that really what all the fuss was about?” That’s why it’s nice to come across a title that someway lives up to its exaggerated reputation. Scalps certainly delivers on the gore score and includes one or two grisly scenes that somewhat exceed the expectations of the shoestring budget. The Grim Reaper and Mystery in Rome also boasted extreme gore scenarios, but still couldn’t lift themselves above mediocrity. I hoped that Scalps could support the bloody stuff with a few decent shocks and surprises.
Six bizarrely spaced out anthropology students head out to the Californian Desert to dig up Indian artifacts. Despite a crazy Ralph-style ominous warning from an old Indian named Billy Iron Wing, they continue their journey deep into the vastly uninhabited wasteland. Whilst digging in the blistering sun, the troupe unwittingly evoke the wraith of Black Claw, the spirit of an evil renegade who died one hundred years earlier. Before long he has possessed one of the gang members and begins to slaughter the rest of them one by one. Stranded in the remote wilderness, the remaining students realize that they have to fight to survive his murderous intentions…
Fred Olen Ray tells us on the very informative DVD commentary track that the original distributors of Scalps took the liberty of editing the movie themselves in an attempt to make it more appealing to the commercial market. Unfortunately, what they did was pretty much make a mish-mash of a film that would have been a damn site more intelligible if they had just released it as the director had originally intended. That explains why we see images of the killer roaming the hills before he has even taken possession of the body that he uses to stalk his victims. Despite these unintentional blunders, Olen Ray’s slasher entry is a worthwhile addition to anyone’s horror collection. Yes it’s easy to mock the amateurish dramatics, unfocused photography and choppy editing. I’m very sure that any film critique worth his salt could quite rightly rip the production standards to shreds. It’s when you consider the fact that this is probably THE most poorly-financed of the early eighties genre additions that you have to give credit for the fact that it manages to do what many bigger budgeted efforts from the time couldn’t come close to. You see, for all its shoestring and money skimping short cuts, you just cannot deny that Scalps is still one hell of an unsettling movie experience.
The director wisely chose to mimic John Carpenter’s method of creating an eerie soundtrack and keeping it playing continuously throughout the runtime. When merged with lengthy shots of the spacious desert, a credibly creepy and extremely desolate feeling is built and sustained. The pace is a tad too slow in places, but you’re always aware that something is going to happen soon, and when the shocks finally arrive they certainly deliver perhaps more brutality than you were expecting. There’s a notorious ‘rape’ sequence included, which feels all the more mean spirited because the victim has her throat messily slashed before being scalped moments after. We also see a pretty effective decapitation that shows a plausible flair for the macabre from the director. Not many horror films can create the feeling of isolation that Scalps carries so effortlessly, and that’s why this movie in its uncut form is so severely underrated.
Unfortunately, all thie pluses don’t come without their share of problems. The lighting is no less than awful in places, which is mainly obvious because one minute the characters will be sitting around a camp fire in total darkness and then the next scene will look like it was filmed at around 6 o’clock in the morning. It’s obvious that any early eighties miniscule slasher production isn’t going to have the best lighting rig in Hollywood, but when it boils down to a handful of candles and two flashlights, questions seriously do need to be asked. Perhaps Olen Ray would’ve done better to shoot all the action in the afternoon light, instead of trying to outgrow his finances. As I said earlier, the acting is as block-like as an antique timber yard and some of the camera operators look to have turned up on the set after a 24-hour rendezvous with Jim Bean and Jack Daniels. It’s also worth noting that the bemusing tag lines on most VHS releases make this sound like some type of zombie flick. Don’t be fooled. It is 100% stalk and slash and it looks like the person responsible for the cover blurb didn’t even bother watching the movie.
Scalps is still mean and creepy enough to earn a decent three-star star rating. It is most certainly shoe-lace funded, but when you consider the fact that drivel like Trick or Treat cost almost three times as much to make, then you have to say that this is a pretty decent chunk of slasher memorabilia. It certainly has the potential to be updated and remade; there just haven’t been enough crazy Native American killers! Certainly worth a look and definitely undeserving of the 2.9 rating that it has on the IMDB