Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Return to Horror High (1987)

by Brian S. "Peaked in High School" Roe

Within the first five minutes of watching Return to Horror High, I understood completely why it was in the dollar bin. As a rule when Marcia Brady is given second billing on the cover, a viewer should put the DVD down and walk away. Or better yet throw the disc away and use the case to hold something of value, like a ripped version of Captain Kronus or Blacula. Instead I sat through 94 minutes of boring, choppy blandness that was strongly flavored with the stink of smug “ain’t we clever” nonsense smeared all over it.

Okay, I can get my head around a horror/comedy. There have been a few decent ones, but this one ain’t it, my kiddies. It’s like someone’s mom wrote the script based on what she thought slasher movies were about, basically tits, blood, and dry ice fog. I am not against these three things in any way. However when female nudity is clumsy and forced, including the classic line “No exploding tit shots!” followed seconds after by an exploding tit, I am dubious as to the aesthetic value of showing it. It’s as if the producers had a recipe for a horror movie but didn’t know when to add the ingredients.

But this was the 1980s, right? Mobile phones took up entire briefcases, glasses used lenses the size of TV screens, and every movie had to have a softcore sex scene. And this one’s no exception, finally kicking into a soft rock soundtrack for our soft lead characters to rub themselves softly against each other. Goddamnit! That’s the whole fucking problem with this movie! It is soft, and bland, and pointless. White-bread-with-mayonnaise-and-Kraft-American-singles-style soft and bland. Even the grueling dissection scene is only notable for the truly odd squeak that comes out of the male victim. That’s no sound for a man to make, ever!

This softness seems intentional, like the filmmakers wanted to have murder, sex, and dry ice fog but didn’t really want to offend anyone. I can’t help but compare this to the superior Slaughter High as a more mean spirited yet more effective movie.

What, the story? A film crew goes to a high school where murders happened to film a movie about the murders but then get murdered. Maureen McCormick looks like a relatively sexy policewoman-themed stripper (the black gloves are a nice touch), um, the producer is a dick, the director is a weakling, the janitor talks about his dick, the special effects guy has a lame rattail coming off the side of his head, the fake blood looks worse than the stuff that comes from the dollar store, the producer talks about his dick, George Clooney is in the movie for two or three minutes and looks like he’s sixteen, and then it ends and ends and ends. Four fucking sequel hooks including the line “They always make sequels.” You self-referential jackasses!

This kind of know it all smart-ass crap is the reason why I never want to watch Scream. And when it’s handled as badly as RTHH, it makes me crazy. I don’t want to be reminded that I’m watching a movie. Try to act like suspension of disbelief might be an option. I wanted to punch this movie until it quit moving.

There are some oddly disturbing moments in the film. Maureen McCormick gets strangely turned on by all of the carnage, even getting to the point when she rubs blood into her breast while talking about someone’s intestines full of feces. She eats a chili dog while her captain is looking at a corpse and some of the chili drips onto his coat. But the most unsettling scene is when she is drinking out of a paper cup of soda without a straw, but the cup makes a straw slurp sound! It boggles the mind! And then she sips out of the straw while it is out of the cup and it makes an even more odd straw suck sound, like she was slurping Jell-O through it. Here the filmmaker decided to exploit the full use of Foley to convince the audience that something was amiss. All through strange sounding straw slurps.

Return to Horror High has all of the atmosphere and sense of dread of an ABC After School special and the erotic tension of a farm report. I only watched this because my VCR broke and all my good movies were on tape. Time to start buying more DVDs pronto. Don’t watch this movie. You’ve been warned.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland (1989)

by Jimmy "Snipe Hunt" Callaway

This movie’s a lot like a guy you kinda know, like you see him out a lot, he’s friends with some of your friends, and he’s an all right guy and all, but simply put, you can’t stand him. You realize a lot of it is because you went to high school with his older brother, Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers, and that guy was a total shithead. But you know you shouldn’t let that wholly influence your opinion of him, especially when he even goes out of his way to be nice to you some times, like buying you a drink every now and again. But the whole time, you’re still like, Dude, shut the fuck up.

Begin with the sub-title. Right off, I’m way more into a Who reference than I am a cheap one-liner like the last subtitle. It’s also not as lazy a reference as most are in this, the downward spiral of the Sleepaway Camp series and the misadventures of Angela Baker; it remains pertinent to what can be construed as the theme in these (as well as most) slasher movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s: the dissatisfaction of the American youth taking physical form in brutal sex and mindless violence, not unlike the 1950s juvenile delinquent movie (I guess the phrase “Unhappy Campers” does that in a way as well, but in a much more cutesy, oh-those-wacky-teenagers way).

This becomes a leit-motif for the movie to me: it hovers at being as hateful as the last one, but manages to pull itself back and show some intelligence. Therefore, I actually do like it more than the last one, although I’d still rather take a ball-peen hammer to the face than sit through it again.

The plot of the movie mostly seems to revolve around how lukewarm and unerotic the director can make breasts seem. Right off the bat, we’re treated to two of the smallest, mosquito-bite boobies to ever grace the silver screen, tattooed with the words “Milk Shake” (“Milk Shake”? More like half and half! Ba-dum-bum-bum!). Fortunately, Angela runs her over with a garbage truck, and the movie has officially begun.

Camp New Horizons, on the former grounds of Camp Rolling Hills, is a social experiment meant to pair upper middle-class kids with kids who have had it rougher and to try to bridge the gaps between their social strata. It’s also a major tax dodge for its founders, Herman and Lily Miranda. Why the Munsters reference there, I don’t know, nor why the filmmakers didn’t follow through more on these characters’ overt hypocrisy (not to mention that of the newscaster who’s quickly done away with), except to suppose that splatter-as-usual is always going to take precedence over everything else in these movies.

But there is a spark of ingenuity in naming the rich kids after the cast of The Brady Bunch and the wrong-side-of-the-tracks kids after the cast of West Side Story. Of course, that spark is quickly smothered, as there turns out to be more depth to the characters in Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol (for the record, one of my personal favorites). Then to round out the inconsequential pop culture references, we also have camp counselor Barney Whitmore, who is also a cop (huh? huh? get it? The Andy Griffith Sh—aw, never mind) and the father of Sean Whitmore, who was killed in the previous movie along with his acting career.

Barney’s out to avenge his son, but even his keen police instinct can’t detect Angela, disguised as camper Maria. In Barney’s defense, Angela is wearing a wig that is about as convincing as your Uncle Sid’s toupee. Then, when Barney finally puts it all together, he immediately takes his chance at vengeance and whizzes it down his leg. No wonder he had to keep his one bullet in his shirt pocket.

Anyway, back to the tits. Now, I’d like to make it clear at this point that I love breasts. They’re two of my favorite things. But this movie, not unlike Sleepaway Camp II, ends up treating them like wallpaper. They’re nice at first, they really brighten up the room, but after a while, you’re wondering if you shouldn’t have just gone to the trouble of painting instead. There’s a scene early on where all the girls are in their cabin, naked to the waist as any group of three or more girls is likely to be. And it’s not that these breasts aren’t lovely in themselves, but cinematically, they’re just kinda...there. They’ve got no charisma, no personality, no on-screen chemistry. They don’t make love to the camera; they don’t even give the camera a cheap hand job in the bus station men’s room. I defy even the most rabid tit man out there to get turned on by this scene.

And speaking of sexploitation, Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland holds the rare distinction of depicting the most awkward and uncomfortable sex scene in movie history. BAFTA-winner Michael J. Pollard portrays head counselor Herman in this flick, and it's clear he was cast for his imp-like roguishness. But it would seem the director wasn’t happy with that, and had Pollard ramp it up, mugging for the camera at Rip Taylor-like proportions. Now, I’ve enjoyed Pollard in other stuff, even tearing up more than a little during his death scene in Scrooged. But his constant eye-rolling swagger and hitching up of his Playboy-bunny belt buckle makes me want to give him a good, hard slap to the face.

But it doesn’t end there, oh no. Herman eventually gets little firecracker Jan into his tent, and we’re subjected to Pollard rolling around with a half-naked girl easily 30 years his junior. Stacie Lambert, who plays Jan, has discomfort rolling off of her in waves as this little elf man, who showed such promise in Bonnie and Clyde, paws at her boobs like a blind frat boy. The rape scene in Boys Don't Cry is light and romantic compared to this. Ms. Lambert (according to my research) never acted again, having most certainly walked off the set of this movie and into a convent.

And that really about does it for this movie. Everything else is about as by-the-book as you could please. To recap, Angela kills everybody because they like sex and drugs and rock and roll, and so on. There’s no end to the god-awful one-liners. The acting makes Ed Wood’s stable look like the Coen brothers’. There’s a big, padding flashback to Angela’s happier days, and I will say there’s at least some character development there. Angela’s unbridled optimism from the last movie has finally been deadened some, so now when she kills, there’s not so much joy in it, like it’s become more of a chore now than a career. So that’s all right.

But y’know what, movie? Too little too late. So whenever I run into Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland at the bar, we might talk a bit about records and TV shows. Just a little polite, casual conversation before I go over and sit with my real friends. But if it doesn’t leave me alone after a while, I’m like, Dude.

Fuck off already.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Prowler (1981)

by Cameron “I woulda got away with it if not for those pesky kids” Ashley

The history of horror movies is in many ways the history of missed opportunity. For every Friday the 13th and Black Christmas, there’s some trash that, despite some seriously awesome moments, just fails due to either low budget, low creativity, or lack of talent. We’ve seen the proliferation of remakes of iconic horror brands, brands with in-built fan-bases featuring characters already burned into the popular consciousness. By and large, they have been remakes of films that already worked. By and large, these new efforts have sucked. If we have to have remakes, what I’d like to see is more remakes of the contenders of the genre, films that didn’t quite get over the line but are armed with enough potential for decent creative personnel to prove that you can, indeed, polish a turd.

Which brings us to The Prowler.

The Prowler, not to be confused with James Ellroy’s fave film noir of the same name, came out in 1981, during the Golden Age of slasher films. Directed by Joseph Zito, who went on to score big time in 1984 with Missing in Action (plus filming Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter that same year) and Invasion USA in 1985. The Prowler has a terrible score, overlong scenes building little to no tension, an unattractive final girl and a total non-twist conclusion. Its killer isn’t menacing enough; we get one pair of tits and what passes for beefcake kind of looks like Christopher Walken’s illegitimate half-brother. It’s a shame The Prowler doesn’t rock your face off. With a premise like the following, there’s little excuse:

It’s 1980. The kids of Avalon Bay are rolling joints and hoarding booze, getting ready for the first graduation dance since 1945, when a returning soldier stuck a pitchfork through his ex-girlfriend and the asshole she dumped him for whilst he was off fighting Nazis. The killer was never caught and the girl’s wheelchair-bound father, now more anti-dance than the preacher in Footloose, sits at the bedroom window of his gothic mansion perving at the chicks in the neighboring dorm. There’s a violent criminal from another town heading towards them. The local voyeur is out and about and on the make. The sheriff’s gone fishing and his deputy is out of his depth. Out in the cemetery, Rosemary’s grave has been dug up. And a psychopathic, heartbroken former GI has dusted off his uniform, sharpened his knife and is ready to learn these kids good for their loose ways.

How could this be anything but awesome? It’s got the kind of batshit-pseudo urban legend mythology that good slasher films thrive on. It’s got a girls dorm. It’s got legitimately good to great locations. It’s got Lawrence Tierney as Rosemary’s dad, Major Chatham. It’s got the legendary Tom fuckin’ Savini rocking the gore make-up! Why is The Prowler so...boring?

The problem lies chiefly with the screenplay which really just plods along right from the very opening (a 1940’s newsreel of soldiers returning home, into a flashback where Rosemary--the killer’s ex--gets hers), perhaps written with the expectation that Zito had the chops to bring the tension.

But here’s where things get a little strange. Neal Barbera and Glenn Leopold are the writers responsible for The Prowler. Barbera, unless there’s an IMDB cock-up, is in fact the son of the legendary Joseph Barbera and penned, believe it or not, episodes of Yogi Bear, the all-star team-up of Scooby’s Laff Olympics, Pebbles and Bam-Bam and the god-damn Banana Splits (one of my favourite shows of all time).

Leopold is another cartoon writer and sports a resume just as impressive as Barbera’s with episodes of the Godzilla cartoon (!!), Scooby-Doo, The Smurfs and, fuck me, Super-Friends under his belt.

You’d think these guys could pace a slasher film, which, when you think about it, is basically formulated like a pornographic episode of Scooby-Doo: small towns, gothic settings, masked criminals, meddling kids, and the fact that pretty much anyone over 30 is either creepy, touched in the head, wheelchair-bound or a combination of all three.

Sadly, what we get is a pretty laboured set-up and the let’s-look-down-this-hallway-for-looong-stretches-of-time repeatedly and it wears pretty thin pretty quickly. Adding to the woes is the grating score that just goes:


It’s the sound of my inner writer having a mental fucking breakdown at the waste.

The slightly frumpy Vicki Dawson plays our final girl Pam, and although she’s not the prettiest scream queen ever, she is at least sensible. She doesn’t bother to try and engage our prowler in any stilted horror film conversation, she just fucks off out of his way as quickly as she can, proving herself to be fairly capable even if she can’t figure out how to open locked doors very well. She takes no shit from boyfriend Deputy Mark London (the kinda-sorta Walken-esque featured Christopher Goutman) when he tries to shake her loose from his half-hearted hunt for the killer, and she proves to be an adequate sleuth, not on the Velma level by any means, but not bad.

Our killer, garbed in full army gear, complete with some camo mask on under his helmet is properly stoic and silent. He’s good with a knife and, for some reason...a pitchfork...but he’s really just not very scary, despite how he appears on the cover. He is, however, extremely violent. The gore in this film is crazy for the period, up there with the bloodiest (which perhaps is William Lustig’s Maniac, another Savini-spattered flick, but this is certainly debatable and I’m not the type of guy to re-watch things just to see which has the most viscera). It feels like Savini realized that this was a pretty boring affair and that he really needed to bring his entire supply of fake blood to salvage things.

He very nearly does.

If Zito lingers on the boring bits, he also lingers on the gruesome bits and there are some pretty unflinching death scenes here, cameras fixating on slashed throats and pitchforked torsos. The death sequences are far from classic or innovative, but they are effective and, combined with the strength of the film’s premise, are enough to drag The Prowler over the line into ‘Watchable.’ But why doesn’t our soldier have more weaponry in his arsenal than a knife, a gun and the random pitchfork? Why can’t he do crazy commando shit like tear throats out (RIP, Dalton) or McGuyver his surroundings into death traps with only a match stick and a pubic hair? Why does he just lumber around like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers instead of springing out or rolling about to give us a real spook? Come on, guys!

I realize that the guy must be pretty old, but he’s always right where you think he’s going to be and quite obviously never where Zito wants us to think he is. You can argue that audiences are now both accustomed to this shit and jaded by it, but (for example) Black Christmas was made in 1974 and that is still perhaps the creepiest thing ever filmed (digression: how hot was Margot Kidder back then? Seriously. What happened between Black Christmas and Superman?).

Our GI-prowler is neither creepy nor imposing nor creatively brutal, all of which adds up to him being a total D-lister on the cinematic spree-killer scale. His legend isn’t built up enough either--it should either permeate the town or poison those trying to bury it. The only person presumably still affected by it is Rosemary’s dad (Tierney) who has no dialogue, nor any scenes of any merit. It’s a befuddling waste of a potentially crucial and interesting character as well as an actor with serious presence. If you’ve got Lawrence Tierney and you’re only using him in longshots, you’ve got fucking rocks in your head. The revelation of the killer’s identity is a real groaner as it’s telegraphed pretty much from the start, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and the writers can’t be bothered building up their red herrings whatsoever. Must’ve been some All-New Popeye scripts in bad need of a story-edit.

Whilst relevant for slasher completists and Savini freaks, for the rest of us, The Prowler is perhaps best viewed either out of a curiosity to see what happens when two cartoon writers and a Chuck Norris director go “Hey, let’s do a film where a chick gets a tit cut off,” or with an eye toward the squandered potential in much of this genre. The Prowler could have and should have been a classic. Instead, it’s one of the cleverer ideas for a slasher film squandered, put together by a creative team who, at the very least, should have given us some thrills outside of just ultra-violent slaughter.

Ultimately, no amount of bloody Scooby Snacks can make this dog hunt. A remake, however, perhaps under the original Australian release title of Rosemary’s Killer or its other alias, The Graduation...well, it’s not the worst idea I ever heard. That would be the idea of a Videodrome remake. Don’t get me started...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (1988)

by Jimmy "Unhappier Camper" Callaway

On the soundtrack for this movie is a song by The Dead Milkmen. When I was a junior in high school, The Dead Milkmen were my absolute favorite band, not to mention the headliners at my very first punk rock show. But everybody’s favorite band has at least one or two songs they can’t stand. And as I rode the school bus home everyday and listened to the Bucky Fellini album on my Walkman, there was always one song I fast-forwarded through: “Instant Club Hit (You’ll Dance to Anything).” It was a satirical song, a techno-dance pop song about how techno-dance pop songs suck really bad. I got the joke; I even thought it was kinda funny. But it still sucked really bad.

Can you guess which Dead Milkmen song is on this soundtrack?

What really sticks in my craw about this flick is not the derivative plot or lackluster effects or embarrassing acting. I mean, shit like that crops up in good slasher movies too, to no majorly ill effects. No, what I hate about this movie is how much it wants to be a satire. References to other more well-received slasher flicks abound, as well as to the ‘80s teen movie as a genre, and I would guess that we, the audience, are to nod our heads and say, “Ah, a pithy attempt to blend two different genres which appeal to the same demographic, thereby blurring the line between sex and violence in the cinema as well as in reality. Well met, author, and encore!”

Yeah, well, all I see is an uninspired, lazy-ass way to cue up memories of other, better movies, so the same enjoyment they brought us will be associated with a big hunk of shit that still can’t crack the 90-minute mark, even with a full re-cap two-thirds of the way in.

The movie takes place at Camp Rolling Hills, which apparently doesn’t have a very rigorous screening process for potential counselors. Not only do they go and hire Merle “The Pearl” from Eight is Enough, but also Angela Johnson, née Baker, the killer from the first Sleepaway Camp, portrayed this time around by Bruce Springsteen’s little sister, Pamela. No attempt is made at suspense as far as whodunnit (at least, not to the audience); this is clearly a sequel in name only (and about that: within ten minutes of this flick, I began wondering why they even made this a sequel. It has next to nothing to do with the original, in plot, in tone, in character, in anything except name. If they’d called it Teenaged Pinheads Get All Sliced Up in a Woodsy Setting, hell, I’d have watched that. The original couldn’t have been that successful that the producers thought they were gonna really clean up on Angela-mania. Like, Jaws: the Revenge is an unmitigated piece of shit, but you can see the logic there. But this is kinda like making Pure Luck II, with Frank Stallone playing the Martin Short character. Anyway, I digress).

That formula I’ve referred to elsewhere, with slasher movies being morality plays? Well, Sleepaway Camp II is a fairly textbook case. The kids misbehave, and Angela kills them. That’s that. At first, I wanted to say this is a load of preachy bullshit, but the movie clearly doesn’t really think sex and drugs and rock and roll are all that bad (even if every band on this soundtrack was signed to Enigma Records). The avenging angel here is not justified in her murderous acts, but is quickly characterized as being a crazy lunatic who won’t even show off her titties. But it’s still textbook stuff, and textbooks are still boring; as anyone who’s sat through sex education can attest, by-the-book methods can make even the funnest stuff as dull as NPR.

But couldn’t we see this as a delightful send-up of slasher movies? Couldn’t it be that the film-makers employed the stock knife-kill formula and then attempted to point up the inherent shortcomings of formulaic story-telling? Yeah, I guess, but then you’ve just got a crappy Dead Milkmen song.

See, despite all evidence to the contrary, I do my god-damnedest to give any film-maker or writer or any sort of artist the complete benefit of the doubt by absorbing their work as a work of art (however rigidly you define that term [which, in my case, would be not at all]). So I try not to assume that anyone’s cashing in on whatever the trend is at the time. And even when guys like Johnny Rotten come right out and say that’s exactly what they’re doing, I still often end up considering that to be part of how the work in whole should be read and not just dismissed outright. But Jesus Christ, Sleepaway Camp II fights me every step of the way on this.

Right off, the DVD cover shows Angela (I guess: the girl on the cover only passingly looks like Pamela Springsteen or anybody else in the movie, for that matter) in the woods with a backpack containing Jason Voorhees’ hockey mask and Freddy Krueger’s glove. “See, kids, we’re hip to the iconography of this new(-ish) wacky slasher genre you nutty nuts love so much. See? See?” Yeah, yeah, we get it. Sheesh.

Then, two of Angela’s victims try to prank her by dressing up as (can you guess?) Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger! Oh, for fun! But these two little scamps get their comeuppance from an Angela dressed up as Michael Myers (I, again, guess: she looks more like Michael Myers in a community theater production of The Deer Hunter). Ah, I see, Halloween pre-dates Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, so therefore,’s better. I dunno. It doesn’t really figure into the movie from there.

See, now, I’m forced to assume all these references are nothing more than easily recognizable icons for the 1980s movie-going public, so they could go, “Oh, right, I’ve seen that,” and then chuckle to themselves. Apparently, passive recognition of popular culture equals funny to most people (aspiring writers for Family Guy, take note).

Then, there’s the character names. With only a couple of exceptions, every character is named after a member of the Brat Pack: Demi, Rob, Emilio, Judd, and so on. And lest any of you think this is a mere show-biz inside “joke,” well, let me tell you that, yeah, you’re probably right. I mean, there’s really no evidence to the contrary. And it’s really not a bad idea, if only it had been explored. Is the heroine named Molly because that’s kind of the character Molly Ringwald would often play? Is the bitchy popular girl named Ally because that’s the antithesis of Ally Sheedy’s character in The Breakfast Club? Is the token black kid named Judd because Judd Nelson was the blackest of the ultra-white ‘80s teen scene? Even the fact that Molly is played by Renée Estevez, baby sister of Emilio Estevez, is never used to any end, except when she mentions in passing that she comes from a big family (and I’m really stretching my own logic to include that)(and I’ll mention here that Renée Estevez being in this flick really proves how devoted Martin Sheen is to not letting his kids trade on his name). So many wasted opportunities, and for what? So we can all wonder whatever happened to Mare Winningham, I suppose.

When I was 18 or so, some guys my friends and I knew started this band, a kinda death-metal/emo-ish thing. It wasn’t the sort of thing we were huge into, but we went and saw them play once or twice. I just kinda shrugged my shoulders, figured I didn’t much care for it, but hey, if this was the kinda band they wanted to do, then that’s their thing. One of my friends, however, was far more cynical about the whole thing. He said these guys had it set up perfectly for themselves: if their band did well as a death-metal/emo-ish thing, then they were sitting pretty; if people thought they sucked, they could just say it was a joke and they were actually making fun of death-metal/emo-ish bands. That they’d left themselves this out, my friend thought, was artistically cowardly, and by not making it clear which way they were leaning, they weren’t so much defying typical musical-genre definitions, but instead exploiting the vagueness there so they’d be able to make out with cute riot grrrls after the show. You can’t have it both ways, he said, and I found myself agreeing with him completely. Fortunately, the band in question dissolved pretty quickly and is all but forgotten.

Not unlike Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

by Mean Mr. Jimmy Callaway

If you’re anything like me, you’re an atheist.

But even that doesn’t draw as many stares as the fact that I don’t celebrate Christmas. Disbelief in a superior power is a concept people seem to be able to wrap their heads around; not blowing every last dime on presents for people one doesn’t particularly like or not getting all misty-eyed during the Art Carney episode of The Twilight Zone, well, that’s just...wrong, somehow. And it’s even more difficult to explain that it’s not strictly Christmas I have a problem with. I have many warm Christmas memories, mostly having to do with Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. So it’s not that so much as my explicit refusal to observe outmoded traditions simply because they are traditions. That’s behavior fit for the likes of sheep or Exploited fans. Not for anybody with a brain.

I had a writing professor who had a really well-formed lecture on the formula followed by the average slasher movie. I tried to drum it up for reference on this little project, but no soap. However, his basic point was that these flicks tend to bang out like little morality plays. The victims tend to be guilty of various perceived sins like cruelty, substance abuse, lust, etc. The moral: be good or Jason/Freddy/Michael/whoever will chop you up. And on the surface, Silent Night, Deadly Night seems to follow this formula to the bitter end. But I would say that this flick tries to extend itself beyond the formula, so instead of just reinforcing commonly held moral beliefs, it questions the hypocrisy and futility of those who would impose absolutist “naughty or nice” modes of judgment and punishment. Basically, this flick says that if we try to pigeonhole human behavior into broad, polarized concepts like “good” or “bad,” we’ll not only fail spectacularly, but people will end up worse than when we started.

Don’t get me wrong, though. This is still a slasher movie, through and through. It’s got a low budget, not very good acting, painfully “witty” dialogue, and blood ‘n’ guts by the barrelful. It opens with young Billy and his baby brother Ricky and their lovely blonde parents off to visit Grandpa. Aw, isn’t that sweet? Thing of it is, Granddad lives at the Utah Mental Health Facility (which I imagine does some pretty brisk business). Grandpa is catatonic, or at least he is until he’s alone with Billy. Then he pipes up with all this nutcase stuff about how Santa Claus punishes all the naughty boys and girls. Then, as soon as Mom and Dad return, Grandpa’s back in dreamland. Aside from the Michigan J. Frog parallel, Grandpa here is obviously the first anti-tradition salvo in the story: the old guard passing on its deranged nonsense to the next generation, and scaring the shit out of them in the process.

Billy’s newly-minted Santa phobia is thoroughly cemented on the way home. Kindly Mom and Dad pull over to help a guy in a Santa suit who’s run into some car trouble. To express his thanks, Santa shoots Dad in the face and then rips Mom’s blouse off before slitting her throat. Billy is upset, and not just because it appears those Hot Wheels he’d been wanting will have to wait until next year.

But seriously, folks, these childish moral codes we drum into kids’ heads from this age should work fine, I guess, as long as crazy shit like the above doesn’t happen. And while you may not often hear about this exact sort of thing, how do you explain all the other random catastrophe that life is full of? What about when a hurricane knocks the house over on Thanksgiving? Guess you shoulda eaten your vegetables, kid. Oh, your uncle diddled your butthole, did he? Maybe if you’d brushed your teeth every night, that sort of thing wouldn’t happen (Oddly enough, not long after I first wrote this little diatribe, that guy in L.A. went on his killing spree dressed as Santa, kicking things off by shooting an 8-year-old girl in the face. I certainly feel bad for her now, but imagine all the bullshit she’s going to have to go through from November 1st to December 26th every year for the rest of her life. I almost feel like I should thank that shithead for driving my point home for me here).

Anyways, back to the movie. Fast-forward now a couple years, and we find Billy being raised in an institution renowned for its progressiveness and forward-thinking: a Catholic orphanage. When 8-year-old Billy draws a violent picture of Santa and Rudolph hacked to bits, he gets taken to task by Mother Superior, a typical (in these kinds of movies and, I’ve found, in life) authority figure: big, mean, and unwaveringly sure of her own authority. She’s gonna break Billy of this nonsensical “traumatization” of seeing his parents murdered, and if kindly young Sister Margaret thinks her hippy-dippy “child psychology” is gonna fly around here, she’s got another think coming. Amen.

It’s bad enough that Billy does something crazy like express himself artistically, but then he has the sheer audacity to innocently stumble upon a young couple fornicating. Nothing will twist a youngster’s mind quite like the sight of two consenting adults creating life. Mother Superior, thankfully, catches him and, quick to recall the Sermon on the Mount, beats the living shit out of him (Here also comes my first real problem with the screenplay. This scene does well to further meld sex and violence in the psyche of young Bill, so that’s all well and good. But who the hell does the deed in a Catholic orphanage in the middle of the day without at least locking the door first? This is never even kinda explained, like some of the later gaping plot holes. I can see that grabbing some afternoon delight in a House of God would be pretty hot, but still).

All right, fast forward ten more years, and Billy is a strapping young lad who drinks his milk and can’t act very well. Typical all-American boy. Sister Margaret, forever Billy’s champion, gets Billy a gig in the local toy store working for Gary’s dad from Weird Science. Sister Margaret, as the voice of reason in this story, really drops the ball here. I get that the toy store job was the last in town, but when we’re talking about a borderline psychopath with deep trauma related to Christmas working in a toy store during Christmas season? Maybe you wanna wait until after New Year’s, or even Presidents Day.

But Billy’s good at his job, working overtime for nothing while really bad ‘80s Christmas music plays. And of course, Billy is really freaked out by the merest sight of a Santa. And also of course, Billy is tapped to play Santa when the original guy craps out. What could possibly go wrong?

But despite frightening the kids a bit (and what department store Santa doesn’t do that every year?), things are going okay. Billy’s able to reign in his nearly palpable mental derangement, until he catches his Neanderthal supervisor, Andy, trying to rape the pretty, young Pamela. What follows is a no-less-than-3-hour flashback to Billy’s parents getting killed, and him catching the couple fucking in the rectory, and the beatings and blah blah blah. Just so we’re all on the same page.

So Billy snaps into action and, completely ignoring the advice of Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods, attempts to be a hero. Big fella that he is, he’s able to pull Andy off Pamela and hang him with a string of Christmas lights. That’s bad enough, but then he leaves him up there until almost March, which is just tacky. Pamela, for some reason, is disturbed by this and calls Billy a monster while defiantly refusing to cover her boobs back up. Billy responds by gutting her from stem to stern with a box cutter. In Billy’s defense, though, Pammy was never that bright really, so there was a good chance she would have eventually tripped over her own feet and impaled herself on a box cutter anyways.

The narrative jumps track a little here to make room for more splatter, as Billy kills Gary’s dad and the other lady employee, whose only sins were being better actors than the dialogue given them. Then Billy hits the neighborhood proper. First, he kills a young couple for being all hot and horny, and possibly for their taste in music. Then, he whacks some other kid with a sled who was just kind of a dildo. Not the best reasons for grisly murder, but they work pretty well within the logic of the film. Also, there are more boobs.

By this time, Sister Margaret has alerted the fuzz, and they scramble to intercept Billy once they figure out he’s headed back to the orphanage, ostensibly to spread his brand of Christmas cheer. The cops are ordered to shoot Santa on sight. When Santa comes tromping up the path to the yard where the children play, Deputy Sheriff Mustache-Face, giving vent to frustrated dreams of Johnny Lightning ownership, lets a few rounds fly. But guess what? It’s not Billy! Oops, sorry, kids. But you know how the only way to solve violence is more violence. Turns out the Santa that Officer Quick Draw has dusted is the kindly old priest who, as Sister Margaret hastily explains, did not respond to the officer’s orders to cease and desist because—whoops!—he’s deaf. Man, you’d think the orphanage woulda learned their lesson with this sorta thing when that blind Easter Bunny hid all those eggs in the breakdown lane on I-70.

Billy does show up eventually, just in time to take an axe to the cop. But just before Mother Superior can be dispatched to meet her maker, some more five-oh burst in and plug Billy in the back. I guess they wanted to kill another Santa in front of the kids in case any of them had been tying their shoes or something the first time and missed out. As Billy dies, he urges the children to not be afraid because Santa’s gone now. But little brother Ricky (remember him?) is on hand to witness all of this, thereby ensuring that this cycle of violence and mental anguish will continue on well into the future. It’s a Christmas miracle!

So yeah, America, let’s keep adhering blindly to every backwards-ass tradition handed down to us by previous, even less educated generations going back hundreds of years, and maybe we’ll be able to produce even more social deviants and psychopaths.

And have yourself a merry fuckin’ Christmas.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Sleepaway Camp (1983)

by Jimmy "Salute Your Shorts" Callaway

Ah, camp. Three months off from the grueling daily summer grind of watching game shows all day and chasing the ice cream truck. Fortunately, I never got shipped off to the woods to get eaten by mosquitoes and tortured by college students named Brad, my parents opting instead to home-torture me. And being a mere slip of a lad in the early ‘80s, I also missed out on the sub-sub-genre of slasher/summer camp films, beginning, of course, with Friday the 13th in 1980, and including such enduring favorites as The Burning, Blood Lake, and Cheerleader Camp. It’s my guess that this little niche was easily exploited, since not only is camping generally dark and scary (especially, I would imagine, to the east coast city dwelling Fundie-types, to whom the summer camp experience seems to be unanimous), but also the innocence associated with this youthful experience (a side played for laughs in flicks like Meatballs, et al) can be turned on its head to explore a darker side, though not much is as terrifying as the sight of twenty-year-old boys in those teeny-tiny shorts that seemed to be all the rage back then (and seriously, those half-shirts? Man, that part of the decade has got a lot of explaining to do).

The flick centers around two cousins, all-American Ricky and cripplingly shy Angela, and their summer at Camp Arawak. Angela’s unnaturally inverted personality soon invites the scorn and abuse of her fellow campers. Yet nobody seems to suspect the creepy, bug-eyed girl when death begins to settle on Camp Arawak (fun fact: “Arawak” is an old Mohawk term for “Paleface with feathered hair”). First, the oily perv of a head chef gets boiled alive in his own soup pot. The camp mourns the loss of his Apple Brown Betty. Then, a scrawny creep in a Blue Oyster Cult t-shirt mysteriously drowns (insert your own “Don’t Fear the Reaper” joke here). And so on. The camp owner wants these “accidents” kept strictly hush-hush, and the local sheriff is too busy having a fake mustache to argue with him. No one’s blow comb is safe.

However, despite the aggressively bad acting of most of the cast, there are some genuinely tense, if not downright scary, moments in Sleepaway Camp. Before watching this flick, I was expecting not much more than blood by the bucketful. And while there’s enough gore here to paint a bunkhouse, a surprising amount of the violence is either really quick or totally off-camera, adding a nice touch of subtlety. And believe me, it’s not easy to add subtlety to a curling iron being used as a murder weapon. God knows how many times I’ve tried.

No discussion, however, of Sleepaway Camp is complete without talking about the big reveal. Without getting into details, I will go so far as to say that the concluding scene is no less than jaw-dropping, not just for what actually happens, but for how it affects your entire movie-going experience thus far. It’s like this: during the whole picture, you’re giggling at the acting and the tan lines and scoffing at the utter stupidity of the characters. Therefore, it’s standard slasher-flick fare. And since you’re such a smarty-pants know-it-all, you’ve already figured out who the killer is, tossing aside the lame red herring as though it were...well, a dead fish. The movie’s coming into the home stretch and the bodies are piling up, and then...wha’ huh?! A big, fat water balloon of a twist ending smacks you upside the back of your head, soaking you right down to your underwear, so you have to go back to your bunk and change before arts and crafts. Not so smart now, are ya, smartie?

So what I want to know is: just how much of this judo move did the filmmakers really plan? Were they going through the motions of a dumb teen gorefest and then fell ass-backwards into an ending Kreskin couldn’t have seen coming? Or were they purposefully leading you out to the old abandoned cabin to hunt snipes, only to suddenly yank down your shorts and run them up the flagpole before giggling uproariously as they flee off into the woods?

The world may never know.

Did I make all my analogies clear? Because they all related to summer camp, y’see.