February 16, 2018

SCREAM (1981)

A dozen or so rafting weekend warriors meet sticky ends at the hands of an unseen, and quite possibly supernatural, killer in Byron Quisenberry’s 1981 slasher flick, SCREAM.

I imagine that made several of you perk right up. After all, it’s a well worn tale, one loved by many a horror fan. It’s the engine that powered everything from FRIDAY THE 13TH to DON’T GO IN THE WOODS. Exceedingly simple and, if performed well, extremely efficient, the potent mix of isolated, often unaware characters and bloodthirsty masked killer drove many films right up the box office charts. Truth be told, despite being one of the most over used narratives in all of horrordom, it probably has a gallon or two still left in the tank. It’s the kind of story that just never gets old or goes out of date.

However. getting it to work well can be rather tricky. The concept is sound and exciting, but if the execution of the concept is garbage, you’ll just be left with nothing more than a reminder of how well it had been executed a thousand or so times before. It’s so simple. It’s so easy. So when a movie fumbles it as badly as SCREAM does… well, you have to wonder just how in the hell a full creative team failed to grasp the most basic of all horror film premises.

Here we have a dozen or so characters, many of whom blend together into one fleshy blob of stale characterization. I finished watching the film about an hour ago and I can only remember a few names. There’s Bob, the cranky, chain smoking asshole and Laura, the only member of the group who is at all creeped out by the decrepit ghost town they will be calling home for the next day or so. There’s Ross and his co-worker Al, and Lou, the stumbling, bumbling coward everyone bullies because he’s, of course, developmentally challenged. That’s it. That’s all the names I can remember. Everyone else is just cannon fodder.

Shortly after settling down for the night, three members of the party die mysterious deaths. One of the group is found hanging. Two others are found slashed to death. Fingers are immediately pointed and arguments begin to break out. When the sun rises, they find their rafts have been destroyed. A couple of guys on motorbikes show up and one of the group leaves with them to find help. When night falls and the clock strikes midnight, several members of the group are attacked by the unseen killer. The arrival of a tall stranger on horseback might lend a clue as to who (or what) is responsible. The stranger’s name is Charlie and the tale he tells stretches credulity for everyone involved. Old Charlie is a huntin’ and his prey just so happens to be the vengeful, rampaging ghost of a long dead sea captain.

SCREAM is dull as dishwater, the result of a writer/director with an idea for a film, but no real clue as to how to flesh it out. Most of the film consists of characters sitting around inside a single room with nothing much to do other than wait for one of their friends to go wandering aimlessly in the dark. That isn’t an exaggeration or a lie. The majority of the film’s running time is spent watching characters do absolutely nothing. Sure, they tie a few cans to a piece of rope as an early warning system of sorts but that’s about it. Hell, most of the deaths could have been avoided completely were it not for characters having sudden and momentous lapses in logic. Characters only die because the screenplay dictates that, for no discernible reason, otherwise terrified characters suddenly and inexplicably lose every shred of their survival instincts.

Our characters are completely, 100% reactive characters. And that’s a major problem, not just for this movie in particular but for any movie. You need your characters to be proactive. You need the characters to attempt some kind of escape or take some kind of action that will help them overcome their problems. But the characters in SCREAM just stay sitting inside a run down home. They might bicker every now and then. Maybe someone will say something encouraging from time to time. But no one actively tries to escape. No one actively tries to catch the killer or even fight back when attacked. SCREAM has both the weakest and most useless batch of characters I’ve ever seen in a slasher film.

The easy listening synth soundtrack certainly doesn’t help the mood, and neither does the slow and methodical directing approach Quisenberry chose for the film. The camera is either stationary or it is SLOWWWWWLY panning or tracking. There is no pulse here, no rhythm to the editing. At times, I got the impression that Quisenberry wanted the film to have an artistic edge to it. It’s as if he purposefully sacrificed excitement and audience engagement in an attempt to make a more serious minded film. Well, it backfired tremendously. All his careful attempts at framing and composition mean jack shit if the audience isn’t awake to see them.

I also get the impression that Quisenberry wasn’t just focused on theatrical success, but desperately wanted his film to reach syndication on television. Despite our characters all being on edge, no one ever swears. “You can take your positive attitude and stuff it”, Bob says to Laura. And how does she respond to this sexist, obnoxious asshole? “Listen, Mister, you can just kiss off”. There’s stronger language in Hollywood films from the 1950s.

No blood is ever shown during the multiple murder set pieces and almost all of the violence occurs off screen. There’s no sex, no nudity, no fist fights, no nothing. Absolutely nothing that would offend television censors exists in this film. If it weren’t for the fact that I know SCREAM played in theaters, I would have sworn that this was a made-for-television movie.

Now I’m not suggesting that a film needs viscera, nudity and fisticuffs to be worth watching. That’s simply not true. But their absence is notable when it comes to slasher movies. Even HALLOWEEN flashed a few breasts. So why should anyone watch this film? It’s missing the visual thrills, the bare flesh and spilled blood. It’s missing the proactive and likable characters that usually populate films of this kind. It has no forward momentum, nothing even remotely resembling a heartbeat. We don’t even get a concrete answer as to who was doing the killing. I think we’re supposed to believe that all these men and women were murdered by a ghost, but the film is so poorly put together that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around what the film was trying to say.

So again, I ask, why should anyone watch this film? I’m genuinely sorry, Dear Reader, but I can’t answer that question. There simply isn’t a reason why anyone should ever watch this film.

February 9, 2018

NIGHT RIPPER

Here’s a tidbit of information about yours truly that you don’t know and probably don’t care to know. When the weather changes, I get sick. It happens all the time, almost without fail, and that’s pretty shitty, especially since the weather here in Bumblefuck, Pennsylvania has been fairly schizophrenic as of late. For the past two months, we would go from five days of 30s to two days of 50s to straight down to Siberia levels of wind chill. Three days of 60s gave way to a snow storm. All throughout the month, the weather would stabilize then stroke out. As a result, I spent much of mid-to-late December and early-to-mid January with night time sniffling, sneezing, coughing, aching, stuffy head, fever and couldn’t rest even with medicine.

As a result, I didn’t write very many reviews, mostly because it’s difficult to concentrate on writing complete sentences when snot won’t stop dripping down onto the keyboard. I did however watch a metric shit ton of movies, specifically shot-on-video slasher movies. I figured, I already feel bad so why not feel worse? And worse is exactly how I felt.

But as I was going over the list of films I had watched and checking them off on my “you’re wasting your life watching movies” Excel spreadsheet, I realized that a few had slipped through my sweaty, might-as-well-be-diseased fingers. Like this film, NIGHT RIPPER, a 1986 kinda-sorta giallo/slasher clusterfuck from director Jeff Hathcock. Hathcock is a director I’m quite familiar with. I also kind of fear the man. After all, he made VICTIMS, an absolutely abysmal film that, to my great shock, had a Blu-ray release not too long ago. I didn’t have high hopes for NIGHT RIPPER. Do you think the film exceeded my infinitesimal expectations?

NIGHT RIPPER is set in a world where everyone is cheating on their wife, fiance or significant other. It focuses largely on Dave, a soft-spoken chap with Eli Roth eyebrows, who runs a small photography studio with Mitch, a man we’re supposed to find creepy because he speaks very slowly and in monotone (Mitch is played by Larry Thomas, aka the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld, and yes, that never stops being distracting). There is a murderer wandering the streets, slicing up models, a few of whom just so happened to be patrons of Dave’s studio.

One day, a pretty European woman named Jill shows up at the studio eager to have some risque pictures taken for her boyfriend. Dave is immediately smitten and begins pursuing her romantically, which is kind of a dick move if you ask me because Dave is already engaged to a woman named Karen. We’re let off the ethical hook rather early on as it’s revealed that Karen is having regular trysts with a man twice her age and four times her weight. Tossed into all of this melodrama is Janet, a slightly sinister lesbian delivery woman with some rather unsavory views of models. After the Ripper claims his fourth victim, Dave and Mitch are questioned by the police. Despite the fact that Mitch answers every police question sarcastically and grins like an idiot every time the coppers mention “murder”, “death”, “blood”, “mutilation”, etc, the cops let them go. A little later, Karen ends up dead and the cops turn to Dave, for reasons unknown, to help them catch their culprit, all while Mitch and Janet circle around Jill like two hungry sharks.

NIGHT RIPPER is exactly the kind of film you think it is. Shot on what looks to be a commercially available home video camcorder, filled with terrible sound, questionable acting, and bad special effects, NIGHT RIPPER moves with the speed of a geriatric on downers. To the film’s credit, it keeps the cops off screen for the vast majority of the running time. I’ve said before in some review of some godawful piece of shit, shot-on-video slasher movie, that if you ever see cops in a film like this, run the fuck away. Cops in shot-on-video horror films don’t act like cops, don’t look like cops, don’t do cop stuff at all, and generally only exist to regurgitate information we already know. Oh, you’re going to tell us for five minutes that a woman was murdered last night? Well, thanks, assholes, I already saw that happen a scene or two ago. Thanks for wasting my time.

Not only does the film leave the cops out of this, it largely leaves Dave out of it too, which is odd because, well, he’s the lead character. The final confrontation in the film is a three way affair between every speaking character that isn’t Dave. He doesn’t get to reveal the killer or even have the killer reveal their identity to him. He shows up on the scene after the killer is already dead. What a goddamn hero!

The motive is just a generic “I hate models” cop-out with nothing else added in for flavor. The violence meted out is certainly bloody, but it’s not at all convincing. Most of the murders happen in single shots. We’ll see the knife coming down and then cut to a cheap effect of the blade sticking in someone’s face. Clearly, the special effects budget couldn’t support anything too elaborate. A knife is dragged across an already cut throat. A knife dragged across a woman’s skin leaves a bloody trail of grue, but doesn’t appear to actually break the skin. That sort of thing. Disappointing, but forgivable.

The highlight of the film is the way the killer dies. See, this isn’t called NIGHT RIPPER for no good reason. It ties, or at least tries to tie, itself to the infamous Jack the Ripper murders of 1888. The cops mention the mutilation of corpses (mutilation that we never see; in fact, we often see the killer leave the scene immediately after haphazardly stabbing their victims) and how the killer would have to have medical training to cause such elaborate wounds, just like the Ripper case. Mitch was once a butcher, a theory floated around for Jack the Ripper’s then-current or past profession. Of course, that means the models we see are, according to this film anyway, tantamount to prostitutes, a line of thinking that some might find distasteful.

During the final confrontation between everyone but our hero and the killer, the killer talks about mannequins being like the corpses they’ve been leaving behind. Hollow on the inside, mwahahahaha! AHEM In a moment I’m sure we’re supposed to find wonderfully ironic or woefully poetic, the killer gets their knife stuck in the hand of a mannequin as they tumble to the ground. The mannequin tips over, stabbing the killer to death. And thus the victims have risen from the dead to slay the beast and put their souls to rest.

Or some shit.

It’s a dumb ending to a dumb movie, but I will admit that the absurdity of the ending did leave me with a smile rather than a pained grimace. In fact, there are some really unintentionally funny moments in the film, like how numerous scenes of phone calls end with the actors looking slightly confused at the contraption in their hand, almost as though they’ve been suddenly and inexplicably dumbstruck by 1980s telephone technology. A displeased loved informs her paramour that their frequent sex meet-ups are not love, rather they’re “...just sweaty bodies fucking under flood lamps!”. Clearly the film’s composer never got to finish the job as the creepy synth score sometimes gives way to bubbly elevator music.

Depending on your mood and taste for awful movies, you might get a chuckle or two out of NIGHT RIPPER. You certainly won’t find your hunger for wanton violence and sexual mayhem satisfied, nor will you be at all surprised by who turns out to be the killer. As far as Jeff Hathcock films go, I can’t say NIGHT RIPPER is the worst, but it isn’t going to convert anyone into a Hathcock devotee. It’s just a waste of time, shot-on-video shitter. It’s pretty damn bad, that’s for sure, but it ends with such a delightfully stupid final confrontation that I’m almost – ALMOST – willing to not throw my VHS copy into oncoming traffic.

February 2, 2018

RUN IF YOU CAN

There’s a killer stalking the streets of Beverly Hills, leaving the naked corpses of beautiful women in trash bins all over town. So far, the unknown maniac has left eight bodies in his wake. What the killer doesn’t realize is that whenever they watch their homemade snuff movies of the murders, their video feed is being picked up by a satellite dish on the rooftop of a local Beverly Hills estate.

That estate is currently home to Kim, a pretty college student house sitting while the owners are out of town. Kim writes off these nightly bouts of shoddy murder as errant signals. The dish must be picking up some lurid horror movie on another channel. Despite the murders matching the MO of the nasty killings making headlines all over town, Kim writes this all off as little more than a nuisance. That is until her friend Jill makes an appearance on Snuff TV.

At first, the cops in charge of the case write Kim off as a wacko, just an over-sensitive girl mistaking horror movies for the real deal. Then they find Jill’s corpse (conveniently stuffed in the trunk of one of the cop’s cars). They attempt to rig Kim’s VCR so that she can record the video feed she’s been seeing every night. Unfortunately, pressing record scrambles the signal so Kim does the only thing she can think to do. She snaps some pictures of the TV screen. Thanks to a nosy asshole at the police station, word reaches the local press that Kim has been seeing these murders broadcast on her television. And just like that, the killer begins tracking down our heroine, eager to add her to the body count.

It’s an engaging premise, a little bit VIDEODROME, a little bit slasher movie. RUN IF YOU CAN milks that premise for all it’s worth and therein lies some of the problem. At 90 minutes, the film is too long, too meandering in its set-up. Jill, a character marked for death from the moment we catch a glimpse at her “too many men, too little time” bumper sticker, doesn’t shuffle off the mortal coil until 40 minutes into the film. The shift to stalk and slash thriller doesn’t occur until 20 minutes after that. The first 40 minutes are all set-up, just character moments like Kim talking with a slightly aggressive older teacher, Kim being creeped out by someone selling her shoes, Kim dealing with a mildly sleazy TV serviceman…

Those entire 40 minutes are set up solely so that we can grasp that every man in this film not played by Martin Landau or Jerry Van Dyke is a possible threat to women. In fact, the whole damn world itself seems threatening to women. Spooky music plays over innocuous scenes like Kim walking around a room, a satellite dish slowly panning to the right, or a car driving down the street. This attempt at creating a foreboding atmosphere just comes off as a great, big waste of time. After all, we have a young woman living alone and a serial killer on the loose. Had the film tied the two together earlier, it could have saved both of us a lot of time and energy. I’m sorry, but I just don’t find spooky music playing over scenes of busy city streets during rush hour to be an effective creation of tension.

Thankfully, when the film finally recognizes that its best, most untapped source of tension is Kim being stalked by a killer, RUN IF YOU CAN comes to life wonderfully. While it never escapes its low budget, made-for-TV feel (even though this film is definitely not something you would have ever seen on broadcast television thanks to its oftentimes brutal violence and penchant for bared breasts), the film does manage to be a nice, tight treat in its final third, culminating in at least two unexpected deaths and a skillful retread of the climactic confrontation in Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW. But, and this is a big BUT, the final reveal was a little underwhelming for yours truly. When the mask was pulled off and the killer’s identity was revealed, I struggled to remember just who the hell this person was. After all, the killer made their appearance late in those first 40 minutes of the film and by the time they were introduced, I was genuinely struggling to keep my eyes on the screen.

The aforementioned Martin Landau and Jerry Van Dyke both turn in good performances here, as does Yvette Nipar in the role of Kim. Virginia Stone directs with a solid eye for detail. Everyone involved in the film takes the material quite seriously and that helps to make what is a rather cheap and sordid affair into a thriller with genuine ambition. Sure, the film stumbles thanks to a lack of money and an unfocused first 40 minutes, but I definitely wouldn’t call RUN IF YOU CAN a bad film or even a mediocre one. I quite liked the film once it stopped wasting time and I imagine that if Stone and Co. had a few more days and a few more duckets, RUN IF YOU CAN would be much more fondly remembered.

It has a hell of a premise, good performances and a final third that delivers everything you hoped for when you popped it into the VCR. There’s a lot of great stuff here. You just have to work for it.