March 24, 2017

LADY, STAY DEAD


The oddly titled LADY, STAY DEAD is an Aussie thriller from 1981, written and directed by Terrie Bourke, probably best known for his Worst Film of All Time contender INN OF THE DAMNED. It's a film that begins by juxtaposing a scene of a woman swimming naked in a pool with a scene of a bearded man in women's underwear cuddling up in bed to an exquisitely dressed mannequin. That man, Gordon, has a relationship with that woman, Marie. Not a romantic relationship, mind you. He's the caretaker around her large, expensive home, a home she purchased with the copious amounts of money she makes as a pop singer.

Gordon takes a bit of abuse from Marie. After all, she's a singer and singers are always divas in these kinds of films. When she heads down to the beach for a bit of exercise, Gordon follows her, masturbating as he watches her do her stretches. As he reaches orgasm, he begins seeing visions of nude women, all tied up with rope, all scared out of their wits. 

Clearly, Gordon has issues.

Those issues become crystal clear when he clumsily attempts to seduce Marie a little later on. When she tells him to take a hike, Gordon looses control. He violently rapes her. And when Marie refuses to show her rapist any gratitude for her bodily violation, Gordon looses it again, this time drowning Marie in a fish tank. Once he regains his composure, Gordon attempts to carry Marie's body out to his car, only to be interrupted by Marie's kindly old neighbor and his dog. Guess what happens to them?

So far, so family friendly. For most exploitation films, that might be enough, but because we're only 25 minutes (!) into a 90 minute movie, things start to go even further downhill. Marie's sister, Jenny, shows up at the house. She meets Gordon and, for awhile at least, everything goes well enough. As the night wears on though, Jenny begins to worry about her sister. She also finds the poor dead dog washed up on the beach. When she makes the trek over to the kindly old neighbor's home, she finds the kind, old fella strung up in his garage. Justifiably freaked out, Jenny runs home to call the police, only to have Gordon show up in a nice suit, all ready to spend a nice, relaxing evening with the new object of his affection.

What follows is a bit like STRAW DOGS, only shittier. LADY, STAY DEAD slips out of the murderer focused thriller territory and jumps headlong into the home invasion flick. Gordon cuts the phone, cuts the lights, attempts to break though the window, etc.. His attempts at gaining entry are thwarted at every turn by Jenny, who turns out to be rather capable of taking care of herself. But then two coppers show up for the long climatic battle and Jenny becomes as useless as a Comcast customer service representative.

LADY, STAY DEAD is a weird film with a constantly shifting tone and a rather blasé attitude towards its own violence. It wants to be a roughie, but it lacks the misanthropic fortitude. It wants to be a tension filled thriller, but its too damn lazy to put in the work. Instead, the film just tosses in violence because it knows movies like this contain violence. It tosses in a shootout because movies like this usually have shootouts. It turns our otherwise capable heroine into a screaming damsel in distress because films like this usually have them in droves. Hell, Bourke turns Gordon, an ordinary, nothing special individual into goddamn Jason Voorhees near the end of the film. Why? Because films like this usually contain antagonists that can shrug off grievous bodily injury for the sake of false endings.

And don't get me wrong. LADY, STAY DEAD is a perfectly watchable, sometimes quite enjoyable, cult oddity. But it's the “oddity” bit that kind of sticks in my craw. The film reminds me a bit of Luis Alcorzia's TERROR AND BLACK LACE, another weird thriller, this time from Mexico, that was released in the 1980s. Both films feature a bizarre lead villain (in Alcorzia's film, it's a sex pervert that collects tufts of women's hair; here, it's a dude that is clearly wearing a stolen pair of Marie's panties while he dry humps a mannequin dressed exactly like her) and a more than capable heroine that eventually gets the better of him. But Alcorzia's film largely wastes its more idiosyncratic flavor, devolving into something stereotypical and tiring. It becomes, in the end, just another light weight thriller that checks every single box on the long list of “things people expect to see in a thriller film”.

LADY, STAY DEAD ends up pretty much the same way. It never really steps outside the comfort zone and as result, it never really forms its own identity. It clearly had some kind of influence from films like PSYCHO or DEATH WALKS ON HIGH HEELS, both excellent thrillers in which our female leads meet sticky ends only for a new narrative to start up in their wake, both headed by a close relative of the victim. But LADY, STAY DEAD needed to do something different instead of simply repeating the first act all over again, only this time with more pots of boiling water. Sure, the arrival of the cops and the subsequent shootout (and a darkly hilarious accidental death by immolation) punches up the fun by a few notches, but the whole thing, while enjoyable enough, felt like a familiar walk through the same old damn park.

What the film needed was one detour, one new route through the old stomping grounds. But hey, what the film does, it does well enough to warrant a recommendation. I suppose not every film needs to reinvent the wheel, right?

March 21, 2017

BLOODY WEDNESDAY


“The evening news on television keeps reminding us we live in a violent world. After sundown most of us try to keep off the streets, and stay out of public parks. We feel safe in our homes behind locked doors. The last place we would feel threatened is our neighborhood coffee shop. The film you are about to see depicts what happened in one of these coffee shops.” 

That's the opening text crawl from Mark G. Gilhuis' BLOODY WEDNESDAY, a cult oddity that was released on VHS in 1987. At first, I didn't know what that title referred to. I figured it was just another lazy, direct-to-video slasher film, like SPINE or 555. But no, the title BLOODY WEDNESDAY refers to a real life event, a mass shooting that occurred at a McDonald's restaurant in San Diego on Wednesday, July 18, 1984.

To be honest, that all but killed my buzz. Here I was, bored and in desperate need of entertainment, and what film do I choose to watch? A movie based on what was, at the time, the single deadliest mass shooting in American history.

But truth be told, BLOODY WEDNESDAY is as concerned with an accurate portrayal of those events as I was interested in watching an accurate portrayal of those events. What Gilhuis, working from a script by Oscar winner Philip Yordan (do NOT let that fool you into thinking this is an award worthy film), delivers is about as realistic as Celebrity Death Match. This is perhaps the shining example of exploitation. It takes a real life tragedy and reduces it to camp fodder. BLOODY WEDNESDAY might be inspired by atrocity, but it is beholden to idiocy.

Our lead character is Henry, a man having a bit of a rough patch. His unnamed (and probably undiagnosed) mental troubles have left him unemployed. He is long since estranged from his wife, almost entirely reliant on his older accountant brother to live, and, to put it bluntly, quite bonkers. After wandering through a church service naked, Henry is locked up in an asylum. He meets with his psychologist, Dr. Johnson, a statuesque, lovely blonde. She thinks Henry should be locked away for good. Naturally, Henry disagrees. But Dr. Johnson persists, calling him a danger to others, but Henry assures her that he doesn't want to harm anyone, that he just wants to leave. After three or four minutes of being condescended to by his doctor, Henry finally snaps, giving Dr. Johnson a nice verbal lashing. Instead of that outburst confirming her suspicions about Henry's temper, Dr. Johnson decides to let Henry go.

Someone take this woman's license from her, please.

With nowhere else to go, Henry's brother sets him up in an abandoned, probably condemned, hotel. Henry spends his days talking to his stuffed teddy bear and playing with toys in the bathtub, only occasionally bothered by the usual things. You know, ghosts, hallucinations and a trio of thugs dressed like Rambo. After a short time living in his new digs, Henry's condition begins to worsen. He imagines a friendly bellhop, a jovial chap that tells him about all the nasty things that went down in room 1327. And as all of this is going on, I'm sitting here in front of the TV asking myself 

WHAT THE HELL DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH NOT FEELING SAFE AT COFFEE SHOPS?!?

Well, Henry finally does go on a mass shooting spree, albeit in a diner, not in a coffee shop (this film is a fucking liar), but that little bit of slightly unnerving action only takes place in the final 10 minutes of the film. And that's a big problem because the other 80 minutes are spent watching Henry bounce around inside this obvious and uninteresting clone of THE SHINING. At one point, Henry becomes desperate for money. He asks his friend the bellhop where he can get his hands on some moola and the bellhop tells him all about a rich jerk that comes by now and then looking for a suitcase full of money. So what do we get to watch Henry do? We get to watch him fight a man for a suitcase full of money. 

Only we know the man isn't real. We know the bellhop isn't real, either. And we damn well know that the suitcase Henry finds isn't going to be full of diamonds. So what's the point of this eight minute sequence of events? Is it to illustrate that Henry is going insane? That's clearly evident already. In fact, it's been evident from the first scene in which a despondent Henry all but says “yo, I'm going nuts”.

I suppose the point of putting such an obvious bit of nonsense into the film was to make us doubt the veracity of pretty much everything else in front of us. At one point, Henry is chased by the returning trio of thugs. He produces a gun from inside his stuffed bear and holds the three jerks hostage, all before playing an impromptu game of Russian roulette with them. He then lets the three men go, only to have them show up again later on. They decide, instead of dealing with Henry directly, to give him the machine gun he desperately wants. Better for Henry to get himself offed or arrested than to risk arrest for killing him themselves.

But did that really happen? We know that Henry hallucinates a seduction scene between himself and Dr. Johnson, but are Henry's other visits to Dr, Johnson hallucinations too? Henry's soon-to-be ex-wife visits him at the hotel and attempts to seduce him. Henry drowns her in a bathtub. As her body floats in the tub, Henry's brother visits. When he goes to take a piss, there's no body in the bathtub, but when Henry walks into the bathroom after his brother leaves, the corpse is still there. So what was the hallucination? The murder or the visit from his brother?

This kind of thing could have been incredibly interesting had any of it served any real purpose. As it stands, very little of the first 60 minutes informs the final 30. For most of the film, Henry is a passive character, doing little more than sitting around, having freak outs and being berated by his brother. Had the troubles in his life, like his madness, his failing marriage, his unemployment, been used as a vehicle to push him towards his date with destiny, it would have felt like a meaningful progression. Unfortunately, none of that is of any real consequence. Instead, around the 60 minute mark, the film suddenly takes on unprovoked anti-classism attitude. Henry becomes angry at the rich people, the people with good jobs and security, all the things he's lacking. As a result, Henry kills a diner full of working class people because…?

The allegory doesn't work because the allegory isn't earned. The violent coda of TAXI DRIVER, another obvious influence on this film, works because it was the logical conclusion to its story. It served a purpose. The violence that caps BLOODY WEDNESDAY feels tacked on, added just so the film could earn that “based on a true story” tag line. The logical progression from Henry the off-his-rocker sad sack to Henry the machine gun totin' mass murderer doesn't make much sense here. It's a weird shifting of tone and action that feels completely at odds with itself. Sure, it's a tough scene to watch, especially with the knowledge that it was based on a real life massacre. But that's really all it amounts to, just a tough scene to watch. It's a proper ending to some story. I'm not convinced though that it was the proper ending to this story.

March 17, 2017

THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD


Trying to review THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD is a bit like trying to review silence. No matter how you approach it, you're just going to wind up talking more about absence than substance. Because what exactly can you say about silence? What exactly can you say about this movie? The phrase “nothing happens” is usually tossed out to describe how boring a movie is. Of course it isn't true. Things happen in every film. Hell, things happen in THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD. But just barely. Just enough for it to qualify as a movie. Nothing more, nothing less.

The movie is about four college kids spending time all alone in a soon-to-be renovated dormitory. They spend their days tossing out desks and cleaning the place up, and their nights being spooked by some weirdo with Art Garfunkel hair. Soon enough, a killer shows up to bump them off one by one. That's it. That's the plot of THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that those three sentences comprised the entirety of the films screenplay.

So yes, things happen in this film, but every action and plot point exists without explanation or clarity. For example, why are these four college kids tasked with doing a floor-by-floor clean-up, all alone, of an extremely large campus building? What's the story behind that large group of college kids we saw at the beginning of the film in the pick-up truck? Who was that guy that got killed just before the credits? We never saw him before and we certainly never hear of him again. What's the story with John, the creeper at the dorm? Is he an ex-student? Does he work there? He clearly isn't some random guy because everyone knows his name. So what's his story? Why does the film set up a love triangle between Joanne, our Final Girl, her boyfriend (a character so memorable I can't even remember his name) and bashful Brian if Joanne's boyfriend leaves the film around the 15 minute mark? 

Worse, the film introduces yet another love interest, but only in a single scene, then has that character disappear for nearly the entirety of the film, only showing back up for the final five minutes so the film can have an oh-so-ironic twist at the end. We have a killer whose motive revolves around being madly in love with Joanne even though the film never once hints at anything close to that when we spend time with the killer pre-final reel reveal. Everything here, everything the film throws at us during its last hour, feels made up on the spot. Nothing gels and nothing holds together, all because the film is missing vital connective strands of narrative. Without those bits and pieces, all the action feels disjointed, random and even pointless. Sitting here now, trying to review it, trying to think of a way to somehow connect those dots...

I'm reviewing silence. All I can focus on is what is missing. All I can think to do is to describe the absence.

Truth be told, the first 15 or so minutes of the film are decent. We meet our characters, get acquainted with the setting, and get our first taste of blood. The triple murder of the lovely Debbie (played by the always fetching Daphne Zuniga) and her parents is suitably nasty. It's a good set-up for a slasher film. After that, the film just meanders and the whole thing goes off the rails. I kept waiting for it all to gel, for the film to finally commit to doing something, ANYTHING, with its characters and its set-up, but it never did. Everything after those first 15 minutes is lazy, half hearted and utterly empty. Sure, there's some gnarly deaths from time to time and the film does manage to get its shit together for a longer than usual climatic chase, but all I could think about the entire time was how little actual story this film was telling.

I don't even need to mention the terrible acting, the lackluster direction or the score that desperately wants to be the score from FRIDAY THE 13TH. I don't need to mention the idiocy of some of the scenes, like the way the pre-reveal killer behaves as if there's a camera on him at all times, even pretending to knock himself out to throw us off, as if there was anyone else around to see it except the audience. I don't need to mention any of that, because that isn't really a problem with a z-grade slasher film. I can accept all of that to some degree. No, what truly sinks THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD is the utter lack of gravity and narrative cohesion.

There's no story here. There's no motivation. There's nothing to hold my interest, no real characters to give a shit about, just people on screen doing uninteresting things for reasons never clearly explained. The level of narrative reductionism present here is absolutely aggravating. There's a moment in the film where a character named Craig talks about how he sweet talked a professor into giving him a good grade. When his love interest tells him that she thinks students should earn their good grades through hard work, Craig scoffs at her. That is THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD in a nutshell. It does the bare minimum of work, tossing out a few nasty death scenes along the way, all in hope that the sight of a drill splitting open a skull will so utterly charm us that we will forget that what we're watching is just a lazy, incompetent do-nothing.