Monday, July 27, 2020

Why Stop Now?

What one typically looks for in a genre film: suspense, good storytelling, compelling characters, visual intrigue.

What one finds in Killing Spree: 

Quick Plot: Tom is an airline mechanic with some deep insecurity issues regarding his six-month-old marriage to Leeza, a former flight attendant who left her job to tend the house and keep Tom's imagination from running wild. Things fo from uncomfortable to unbearable when he discovers a diary recapping sexual escapades with the variety of men Leeza encounters throughout her week at home: his best pal Ben, the electrician, stoner lawn mower guy, UPS delivery man, and more.

When Ben brings his Cyndi Lauper knockoff girlfriend over to the house for a quickie, Tom snaps, decapitating the girl and hurling it at Ben from a few floors up (a common method of murder in the '80s). This launches Tom's titular killing spree, a collection of wacky, pun-riddled attacks in the most literal, low budget of styles. The electrician's head is sliced off by the very fan he installed. The delivery guy gets PACKAGED. It's basically every death scene I wrote as a 16-year-old who'd seen too many movies like Killing Spree.

Shockingly, I'd never even HEARD of this film, which just feels like a failing on my part. Killing Spree is pretty awful in almost every way a movie can be, from its actors being directed to talk directly to the camera to the paper-mache body parts that get tossed around like hot potatoes.  Writer/director Tim Ritter ends his credits with a a dedication to Hershell Gordon Lewis, which couldn't feel more right. His leading man's stage name is Abestos Felt, for goodness sake!

Killing Spree is relic of a very particular time in horror, when Hard Rock Zombies and Microwave Massacre could sit beside The Exorcist on video store shelves. Its homemade feel and enthusiastic zaniness is truly something to behold.

Nothing good, but you's something. 

High Points
I'm a firm believer in sitting through the end credits of ANY movie, and Killing Spree offers one of the best rewards ever: closing on an awkward white guy rap that recaps the entire movie. Joy!

Low Points
I get that it's part of the whole nature of Tom's character to be a super toxic husband, but Leeza's so sweet and charming that it's kind of hard to accept why she ever fell for him in the first place

Lessons Learned
Layovers are so named because they're designed to get the pilots laid. WHO KNEW?

One of the easiest ways to kill someone? Climb a short ladder and drop a screwdriver on his head. Gravity is fun!

Karate training is where the real money is

Just in case you were wondering where they went, I found 'em:

Killing Spree is bananas, and probably best watched with a lot of liquor and wisecracking friends. Queue up Amazon Prime and enjoy.

Monday, July 20, 2020

I Saw Goody Good With the Chardonnay!

Witches are having a moment, and it's something every feminist I know is loving. A movie about a modern witch hunt using names from the Salem witch trials made by a man doesn't quite seem like the next step in a movement, but let's take a closer look at the super low budget Amazon Prime offering of Witch-Hunt. We might find something. 

Quick Plot: Four lifelong gal pals get together to celebrate the birthday of Bridget, their ambitious blogger friend with bigger dreams of getting a book deal. Party planner Suzannah organizes the soiree, using her new acquaintance Rebecca's home. Conveniently enough, Rebecca runs a successful publishing company and immediately causes drool to roll out of the birthday girl's mouth.

After the wine is poured, the ladies decide to honor Bridget with her favorite activity: gaming! 

If you've ever played Werewolf or Mafia, you'll get Witch-Hunt. Using a retro cassette tape, the game requires to players to draw a card and use strategy to figure out which one has been assigned the role of the witch. Easy enough, but with just a few tweaks, it becomes psychological torture meant to divide the group. 

Rebecca, you see, has an ulterior motive for hosting someone she barely knows friend's party: back when the women were in preschool, they accused their teacher of ritually abusing them. Satanic panic was in full swing, and the ladies have seemingly buried the scandal for 20+ years. Rebecca smells a successful book, and has even assembled a pair of researchers to dig into the women's psychological profiles to help make the evening reach the deal she needs.

Witch-Hunt is the debut of writer/director Philip Schaeffer, made on what I assume was a shoestring budget for tennis shoes with very short laces. For its opening ten minutes or so, I really thought I was watching someone's audition video for a job as a production assistant on a Lifetime movie. There's some dialog stumbling that makes you wonder if scenes were done in one take, with conversations between women that feel very much written by a man (sample line of a character discussing her friend: "Isn't she pretty? But I always thought she was more talented than she was pretty" -- WHAT?!).

At a certain point though, Witch-Hunt clicked. Many successful low budget films tend to do that: it simply takes a little easing into the movie's limitations to accept what you're getting. Over the course of its 90 minutes, Witch-Hunt turns into a thriller purely based on dialog and character. I can't say that it fully works, but I was genuinely involved in seeing how it ended. 

I don't know much about Philip Schaeffer or the genesis of Witch-Hunt, but I'll certainly keep my ears open for more. I'd love to see this same film remade on a larger budget or with added time to smooth out some of the inevitable first-time kinks. There's something here, and while you have to sift through some messiness to find it, it might be worth the work.

High Points
It's hard not to admire a filmmaker who clearly wanted to tell a story about women, going so far as to limit his 7-person cast to all females. While there is some creakiness to the dialog, Schaeffer gives his core five characters plenty of depth and individuality, avoiding stock stereotypes within the confines of his brief story

Low Points
Look, I understand that a low budget and quick shoot can limit your possibilities, but that's no excuse to have your party planning experts keep the white wine sitting on a room temperature counter all night

Lessons Learned
A book deal is the holy grail for a blogger

Who needs event planners when there are candles and party store decorations?

You can't just not ice someone because they have a noose around their neck

It's not a birthday until the birthday girl has a meltdown

Most traditional horror fans are not going to get much out of Witch-Hunt, and will probably give me a sharp head tilt if they watch it upon my recommendation. But those who want something different and have the ability to see beyond its (lack of) window dressing might find something here. Have at it on Amazon Prime. 

Monday, July 13, 2020

Back to School, Satan Style

One of the (thankfully, very minor) misses I've experienced due to the pandemic is the postponement-and-likely-cancellation of my 20 year high school reunion. Based on the proud fact that I drank the open bar out of Frangelico at my 10 year, I had high hopes for this go 'round.

Despite being a chubby, nerdy, badminton-playing band and theater geek, I had a surprisingly good time as a teenager. That doesn't mean I don't love a good reunion slasher. From Slaughter High to Most Likely to Die, it's proven to be the perfect ground for And Then There Were None hijinks. 

Is 1978's The Redeemer: Son of Satan the first high school reunion horror flick? More importantly, is it THE BEST?

Quick Plot: A young boy named Christopher rises from a lake fully dressed and dry for Sunday service. He hops on a bus with this fellow choir boys, dons some Manos: The Hands of Fate-esque robes, and settles in for his reverend's super fiery sermon on the various evils of the world.

Cut to the various evils of the world, personified here by six 28-year-olds committing an assortment of sins. There's John, a sleazy defense lawyer; party girl Cindy; Roger, a vain actor; Jillian, a snooty pigeon shooting aristocrat in an unhappy marriage; closeted Kristin, and the best, Terry.

You know Terry. I know Terry. Anyone who has ever watched a slasher knows Terry. Terry is the glutton, that perfect horror archetype of the (often permed), somewhat (though usually not that much) overweight joker who loves one thing: food. 

Unlike the madonna and whore, the glutton doesn't always make an appearance in a horror film, but when he (and occasionally she) does, it's typically pretty brief. Maybe there's not enough cash in the craft services budget to keep the character on set. Based on most screenwriting, anyone with a few extra pounds got that way by consuming 8000 calories a day. It's an obnoxious trope, and I find it easier to laugh than think too hard.

Anyway, Terry eats a lot and hates his girlfriend's son, who may have run way because of a prank but please don't think too hard about it because the filmmakers don't. 

We soon discover that our six strangers graduated together and are all cheerfully traveling back to their old stomping grounds for their 10-year reunion. The school was apparently closed and abandoned long ago, but a full buffet awaits!

Yes, Terry is pleased.

The gang quickly realizes something is amiss, since no one else has shown up. A little exploring leads to our first casualty: Terry! And weirdly, not food-based. Ah well.

Some kind of murderous trickster has rigged the facility, planting a stupendous array of armed marionettes and clown masks all around to help assist his murders. No one is safe from his hand-to-hand combat skills or amateur magic shows, all of which are accompanied by glorious and randomly placed laser sound effects because hello 1976!

Unlike every other high school reunion hunt 'em down, the motives behind the murders stem not from bullying and pranks gone wrong but good old fashioned old testament judgement! Turns out, the same preacher who opened our film with angry fire and brimstone babble is the same guy brining literal fire to our gaggle of sinners. And apparently, God thinks this is best done with kabuki makeup.

The Redeemer: Son of Satan is the only credit attributed to director Constantine S. Gochis, which is a small shame. By no means is this a good film, but for its 1978 release date, it has a whole lot of fun with itself. The deaths are elaborate and weird, and the film's loose structure means it actually packs a few surprises. Like many an Amazon Prime discovery, I'm fairly shocked that I'd never heard of it before. It moves quickly because who needs time to get to know stock characters about to meet wacky ends? 

Though honestly, it would have been nice to learn more about these things:

High Points
Sure, some viewers will probably want more of an explanation, but can I just say how much I adored the "magical bowl cut demon seed that rises from and sinks into the water" intro/outro?

Low Points
I'm still a tad annoyed that I don't understand anything about The Redeemer's connection to his victims, but honestly, am I really going to complain when this movie has accomplices like THIS?

Lessons Learned
Nothing gets a waitress hotter than when you stuff her face with a burger and rant about Tarzan

It's rude to talk to someone while holding a gun in your hand, though it's probably ruder to then shoot said someone

Never trust a kid who doesn't laugh at your locker room joke

Redeemer: Son of Satan (that title gets sillier every time I type it) is a fun goof of a horror flick, a pre-slasher era slasher rich with odd decisions. Like many a bad but super entertaining '70s/'80s genre flick, it's streaming on Amazon Prime. Pour yourself a giant bowl of ice cream and enjoy!

Monday, July 6, 2020

A Dream Is a Wish Your Serial Killer Cell Neighbor Makes

For those who prefer horror discussed orally, my podcast occasionally dives into the genre and recently, my cohostess and I decided to subject ourselves to the full catalog of Masters of Horror. If you can take yourself back to the simpler times of 2005, Season 1 gathered some of the true legends of the genre: John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon, Dario Argento, Takashi Miike, William Malone--

Wait! You might have said, especially if your name is Emily. William Malone of FeardotCom? William Malone of The House On Haunted Hill? THAT a master makes?

I approached his episode, The Fair-Haired Child, with a fair amount of apathy. Watching a run of truly terrible episodes -- series creator Mick Garris's Chocolate and the incredibly problematic John Landis's Deer Woman -- my hopes were low. Imagine my extreme shock at discovering this odd little Monkey's Paw adaptation was easily one of the show's very best.

This sparked a new interest in Malone's filmography, and what better way to dive in than with the project he cared so much about that he financed the whole thing himself?

Quick Plot: A well-dressed Sean Young about to enjoy a rooftop meal receives a call, listens for a few seconds, and calmly walks herself off the ledge.


Somewhere else, we meet Danny, a freshly dumped Pacer-driving art student and record store clerk. While visiting his friend in a terribly nonsecure rehab facility, Danny wanders to the psych wing where he finds a few wards of interest: Byron Volpe, a mysterious murderer whose eyes and voice have the ability to hypnotize others to do his bidding (like wife Sean Young) and Laura Baxter, a beautiful young woman suffering from a rare condition where she can only be awake for a few minutes. 

Danny is an easy mark for the charms of a sleeping beauty. When he discovers her impending transfer to a research laboratory known for its poor patient treatment, Danny springs into action, sneaking a mostly comatose Laura out to his lonely apartment.

Spending most of your life in a hospital bed doesn't do much for your social skills, and Laura proves to be quite a handful...especially when the instructions of her former cell neighbor Volpe kick in, causing her to stab a few neighbors and policemen who come too close.

Danny is soon on the run, a situation that gets even more tense when Volpe escapes. Laura, you see, had been something of a project for the powerful serial killer. Volpe could take over her dreams, turning her world into a Hellraiser 2-ish landscape of broken mirrors and Fair-Haired Child-ish goblins. Now with his chance to be with her in the real world, Volpe orchestrates a high stakes finale that involves automatons, angel wings, Jeffrey Combs playing Russian roulette, and a baby Allison Brie on the cello!

Parasomnia was a passion project for Malone, who put up his own money for financing only to have the finished project sit on a shelf for a few years. It's a shame because you know what? It's good!

There's a strong Paperhouse element to the story and details, with Malone's signature visual style making the film not quite look like what you were seeing in 2008. Much like House On Haunted Hill, Parasomnia is filled with gray clouds and almost campy color choices. Malone designed and helped build some of the film's more creative visual elements, including some steampunkish figures and a twig-haired ghost creature that haunts Laura's dreamscape. 

I enjoyed the look of Parasomnia, but more excitingly, I enjoyed the story. I had concerns about Laura's agency, but the film manages to address it in a very satisfying way. Patrick Kilpatrick makes a menacing, almost Shocker-ish villain as Volpe that feels both familiar and fresh. It manages to be ambitious in some of its ideas and visuals, but small enough to understand how to make its limited budget work. 

High Points
There's something wonderfully sweet about Parasomnia's ending. In an era where torture porn and found footage was giving us mostly cruel sendoffs, Malone's sense of empathy is refreshing, both in the fate of his main characters and how their own friends come to support them

Low Points
For as hard as the film works to make it work, there's still something inherently icky about a dude falling in love with a beautiful woman who hasn't been able to say three words to him without falling back asleep

Lessons Learned
Pretty things always have a tragic end

When introducing someone to solid foods, remember that an ice cream cone requires far more motor skills than you probably want to challenge at first bite

It's hard to have a successful musical career if you don't fly (and sometimes harder if you do, when you consider the number of musicians who died in plane crashes...)

Parasomnia showed up on Shudder just as I said to myself, "I should try more William Malone content." The timing was perfect and I'd definitely recommend you take advantage. While there are certainly elements here from other films, Parasomnia has a lot of surprises, and most importantly, is made with true care.