July 7, 2018

A NIGHT TO DISMEMBER

The second VCR my family ever owned was a gloriously large, ridiculously heavy Zenith machine that we bought from K-Mart for a couple hundred bucks. It was a definite step up from our first videocassette recorder, with true composite cable output and a remote control that actually worked from more than five feet away. It also had a feature I didn’t know even existed at the time. While it would still only rewind at standard speed during playback, this Zenith VCR could fast forward at variable speeds. Press the button once and it would move through the film at 2x speed. Press it a second time and it would run noticeably faster. Pressing the button again would kick the machine into overdrive (relatively speaking), zipping the movie along at a whopping 6x speed. A truly remarkable feature for those of us desperately seeking out whatever nudity a film contained while our parents were busy at the grocery store.

When DVD came along, I was blown away by the picture quality, the sound clarity, the special features, all that jazz. But for some reason, I found myself genuinely disappointed by – of all goddamn things – the fast forward and rewind features. Seems like a fairly stupid nitpick, doesn’t it? Well, it is, but I have to admit that back in the day it absolutely annoyed me that kicking the fast forward into high gear didn’t result in a smooth image. I expected something like an old chase scene from a silent movie. What I got was more or less a slide show, with the film seeming to leap forward every ten or fifteen seconds. I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about, right? 

I want you to hold that thought for a moment while I give a very brief (and possibly fabricated) history of Doris Wishman’s 1983 film A NIGHT TO DISMEMBER.

This low rent slasher flick was intended to be Wishman’s first full blooded foray into the horror genre, a real change of pace from the kind of nudie-cutie and roughie flicks Wishman had spent the last two decades creating. Filmed almost entirely in 1977, Wishman’s film plays a bit more like PIECES than HALLOWEEN, a grim and nasty B-movie filled with more than a few gialloesque moments. It might have been yet another success for Wishman had the film been released as intended, but as fate would have it, the world would never set eyes on a fully completed A NIGHT TO DISMEMBER. 

According to legend, nearly 40% of the film negatives were destroyed by a disgruntled lab technician and Wishman, contractually obligated to deliver a feature length film, had to spend the next year or two shooting all new scenes in a desperate attempt to piece together what was left of her film. Whether this story is true or not, I have no idea, but it is very, very easy to tell that A NIGHT TO DISMEMBER is far from complete.

And this brings us back to my petty annoyance with the fast forward feature on my DVD player. Because watching A NIGHT TO DISMEMBER is a lot like watching a movie with the fast forward cranked up to 16x speed. The first few minutes of the film are a disjointed mess, an attempt at back story cobbled together not from whole scenes, but from scene fragments. In order to make this intelligible, Wishman employs voice over narration from a police detective named Tim O’Malley. He tells us all about the Kent family and the horrible fates that befell them in the far future of 1986.

It’s a relatively straight forward bit of exposition covering two generations of the Kent family. In the first, young Susan kills her younger sister, Bonnie, with a hatchet before accidentally falling on the blade herself. In the second, a husband returns home from a business trip to find his beautiful wife dead in a pool of blood. It is later discovered that the husband had hired someone to kill his wife. After his arrest, the man hangs himself in his prison cell. That sounds straight forward, right? Not difficult to follow at all, just a clear cut way of showing that the Kent family tree sure can produce some nuts.

Except watching it play out on screen is a different story. We begin with a zoom-in on an upstairs window of a home, then cut to an old man playing cards. We cut to Bonnie stripping in the bathroom then to a doorknob turning. Bonnie steps into the bath, a hatchet is shown in shadowy silhouette, another window is zoomed in on, then Susan hacks her sister to pieces. Once the bloody work is done, we are treated to a shot of a dead (though still blinking) Susan lying motionless on the floor. We then immediately cut to the second of the two stories without any indication of changing location. A man returns home. He looks around the empty room. We then cut to Detective O’Malley speaking to the man on the phone. This leads to an outdoors shot of a busty, barely clothed woman walking through the woods. When we cut back to the home, the man wanders into another room. We see a brief shot of someone, presumably his wife, lying nude in a blood filled bathtub. The next series of shots involve a black gloved hand turning a doorknob, the wife sitting in her bedroom, a silhouetted murder, another too brief shot of a body being dragged into yet another room, and a silhouette of someone dangling from a noose.

It is obvious that this entire set-up ran much longer in the first cut of the film (if it was included at all; I’ve had difficulty finding out what was originally shot back in 1977 and what was later added to bolster the running time), but here, it plays as a series of disconnected, disjointed shots. Were it not for the voice over narration, none of it would make any sense. This is a problem the film never manages to overcome.

The next scene takes place five years in the past, a plot detail that only serves to further the confusion. Two teen boys are chased into a basement and savagely killed. We learn the culprit is yet another Kent, a young(ish) woman named Vicki. We then move ahead five years to the present day. Despite brutally murdering those two boys, Vicki is released into her parent’s custody after her shrink declares her “cured” of her insanity. This rubs her siblings, Billy and Mary (both of whom are still living at home in their early 30s), the wrong way. Billy is fearful that Vicki might once again go insane. Mary, clearly the petty one in the family, simply doesn’t want Vicki stealing all the attention. Even though both siblings are well aware that Vicki’s brief stint of madness resulted in violent murders, they set about driving their sister crazy. All the while, someone is messily bumping off extended Kent family members.

Had the film been properly completed, all of this would make for a rather enjoyable, exploitative romp. Unfortunately, because it’s such a goddamn mess, Wishman needs to utilize more and more explicit voice over narration as the film goes along. As a result, we don’t even get to entertain the idea that Vicki might be losing her mind once again. We’re flat out told that everything that is happening is being caused by Billy and Mary, even the murders. Hilariously, once Detective O’Malley starts his investigation, the film has O’Malley narrating his own investigation in the third person. This absolutely drove me bonkers as the film went on as I could see the potential in the material. At one point, this was a movie I would have genuinely enjoyed watching.

The murder scenes lay somewhere between Herschell Gordon Lewis and Juan Piquer Simon, unconvincing but appropriately gooey and gross. A head is run over by a car, a knife is repeatedly stabbed into flesh in gruesome close-up, hatchets are slammed into skulls, fingers are cut off, nails are rammed through throats… It’s gloriously nasty and utterly mean spirited. The nudity is plentiful, the acting is dreadful, the excursions into strange 1970s editing are wonderful, the use of superimposition and classic spook show lightning effects are fantastic… It’s all there. 

Except that it isn’t. Not really. It’s a bag of flesh with no skeleton to keep it upright. The film had to be re-dubbed years later by a voice cast of about three people. Sound effects are all done with voices, the stabbing sounds accomplished by having someone go “squish squish” close to the microphone. A dog barking is actually just someone going “arf arf arf” in as highly pitched a voice as they could muster. The score is comprised of inappropriate library tracks. Vicki’s awkward return home is scored with light elevator rock music while her tender reunion with an old boyfriend is scored with booming, Gothic horror music. I’m fairly certain that Wishman used porn loops for the sounds of moaning that accompany all of the murder set pieces, as the actors all sound like they’re getting their rocks off from having their limbs removed. Many of the close-ups in the film are clearly made from B-roll material, as the actor’s close shot reactions rarely suit the context of the scene. With almost a half hour to go in the film, the voice over narration simply stops, rendering much of the final reel unintelligible.

I won’t say, as many other have, that A NIGHT TO DISMEMBER is one of the worst films ever made. It’s still somewhat enjoyable to watch (and at 69 minutes, it won’t waste much of your time) even if it rarely makes much sense. It would be rather easy for me to dismiss any and all criticism of the film by stating “well, it was never finished so...”, but that wouldn’t be an honest bit of argumentation. This particular version of A NIGHT TO DISMEMBER might not have been the intended version, but the fact remains that this is what was released to the public. This IS the film unfortunately and it’s a mess. A complete and total mess. 

But damn it, there’s a good film here, or at least an entertaining film. You can see it among all the confusion and cacophony. I stand by that. This could have been another PIECES, but as it stands, it’s just… wait for it… pieces, held together with tape, gutted and hallowed out. A shell of what it could have been.

June 25, 2018

GOREMET, ZOMBIE CHEF FROM HELL

What should be a mercifully short 67 minutes feels like an eternity. Don Swan’s 1986 Super 8 atrocity GOREMET, ZOMBIE CHEF FROM HELL begins in a field in the year 1386. Three men clad in black robes, members of the Righteous Brotherhood, expel one of their own, Goza, for high treason. As punishment, Goza is condemned to eternal life, an auspicious ‘curse’ which carries an unfortunate caveat. In order to avoid rotting, Goza must consume human flesh.

It was at this point, less than 10 minutes into the film, that I knew I was going to hate every single minute I spent sitting in front of my television. This is roughly the same set-up as the one found in DON’T GO NEAR THE PARK, a movie I hate so much it hurts. I will say that GOREMET, ZOMBIE CHEF FROM HELL is nowhere near as awful as Larry Foldes’ 1979 abortion, but that’s really not saying much. That’s like saying radiation sickness isn’t as awful as prostate cancer.

We move 600 years into the future. Goza is now running a crappy little restaurant with his henchman, Blozor. I would like to give you some kind of plot synopsis, but this movie simply does not have a plot to synopsize. It’s a tired parade of character introduction, character death, character introduction, character death repeated ad nauseam until the final 10 minutes. At that point, the men who expelled Goza 600 years ago reemerge to bring an end to his reign of terror. Even if there was a plot to be found here, I doubt it would be comprehensible.

I’m not going to slag off the film for looking like shit (it was shot on Super 8, after all), nor will I chastise Mr. Swan for not equalizing his sound mix (good luck hearing 25% of the dialogue over the awful slap bass synth puke this movie calls a score). Instead, I’ll take it to task for committing the gravest sin a movie called GOREMET, ZOMBIE CHEF FROM HELL could ever commit. 

It’s fucking boring.

The VHS box art is glorious, promising some semblance of splatter and gore. Apart from a few dime store severed limb props, there’s very little in the way of splatter to be found here. In the only somewhat competent murder set piece the film has to offer, a man’s head is punched off and his spurting blood is sipped like water at a park fountain. It’s the only on-screen death they bothered to film. I will include for your viewing enjoyment three stills from the film. Here, have a look…




See that? That is an actual murder scene in the film. The man in the pictures is Larry, some doofus desperate to find his finance after she went missing in the restaurant. What you’re seeing is the actual death scene. There is no action missing. It’s done in three individual cuts. We never see the girl stab Larry. We never see the knife extend towards him. This is EXACTLY how the death is presented in the film and when I can recreate with 100% accuracy the action of a moving picture in still shots, something is horribly, terribly fucked up.

I should point out that GOREMET, ZOMBIE CHEF FROM HELL is a horror comedy and not a straightforward chiller. This does not let it off the hook for being incompetent. When we first meet Larry, he’s sitting next to Sherry, his soon-to-be finance. She looks like this...


Larry attempts to slide a ring on her finger, but the ring is too small. He can’t get it past her knuckle, despite trying very, very hard. And yes, this is how she wears the ring for the rest of her scenes, with it sitting just below her knuckle. Now, the problem is… I can’t tell if that was intentional or not. Was that meant to be a joke? Was the fact that Larry refers to Sherry as “a blonde” a joke? She’s clearly a brunette so why is he referring to her as a blonde? Was it because Don Swan couldn’t find a blonde actress and never bothered to correct the script to reflect the casting? Was it an attempt at humor? I honestly cannot tell because the movie is so inept and stupid that it slips into Poe’s Law territory. I have no idea how to suss out what is intentionally stupid and what is unintentionally stupid.

Like, was I supposed to be on the edge of my seat as Goza and one of the priests from the Righteous Brotherhood have a Force battle in the park (and yes, they do throw each other around simply by extending their hands, a la STAR WARS)? There are actual stakes in those scenes, unlike the rest of the film. It’s the big fight between good and evil. So was I supposed to care or laugh?

I mean, I didn’t care OR laugh, but you get my point, right?

Another problem is just how padded out this 67 minute film is. Songs are played in their entirety, including one impromptu blues performance in the restaurant. There is a 32 second long shot of two women sitting at a booth during which not a single line of dialogue is spoken. There is an over two minute long scene of Goza making a mixed drink. And what’s worse, because there is no such thing as character development in this film and all the deaths are bloodless, off-screen affairs, each new victim does nothing but prolong the pain. I should be excited when new characters come wandering into the restaurant. I should be giddy at the thought of watching them being butchered. But I don’t get to see that. So every time a new character was introduced, I groaned. It was never going to end. This fucking movie was Never. Going. To. End.

I hated GOREMET, ZOMBIE CHEF FROM HELL every minute it was on my screen. Even when the mystical goddess of the magical brotherhood of Force wielding monks super glued Goza’s lips shut so he would painfully starve to death, I didn’t grin. I didn’t once chuckle or giggle like an idiot. I just wanted it to be over with. I couldn’t wait for it to end. It’s a great, big black hole of a film, just a fun vacuum that sucks up an hour of your life. I would tell you to avoid it, but we both know that you won’t. You’ll want to see it for yourself because… well, it’s called GOREMET, ZOMBIE CHEF FROM HELL. It’s a great title, fantastic even. It’s also the one and only thing good about this whole rotting, stinking affair.

June 21, 2018

BLOOD STALKERS

Last month, I reviewed Harry Kerwin’s 1975 shocker GOD’S BLOODY ACRE, a movie all about three hillbilly rednecks attacking a quartet of damn Yankees squatting in their little area of the Florida wilderness. It’s a small premise stretched out to feature length, with the entire first half of the film devoted to people driving, arguing and walking down the sides of lonely roads. This narrative tedium is flavored with bizarre detours into avant-garde aesthetics and strange stream of consciousness diversions. But just as the film is starting to wear out its welcome, it explodes into a barrage of brutal violence, delivering a final 20 minutes that completely makes up for the long, anemic wait.

BLOOD STALKERS, the 1976 feature film debut from professional Bigfoot tracker (!) Robert Morgan, is cut from the same cloth. Here, we have a trio of backwoods types (one of whom inexplicably has a British accent) terrorizing a gaggle of vacationers who are spending the weekend in an isolated cabin just outside the Everglades. Like Kerwin’s film, most of the running time is devoted to character stuff - relationship issues, talk of financial woes, even old war stories. The film doesn’t really come to life until the halfway mark when our group is attacked by something rather large and hairy, triggering a downward spiral into graphic bloodshed and revenge.

The man in charge of the weekend festivities is Mike, a Vietnam vet who was once admitted to a mental hospital after his wartime activities resulted in the deaths of multiple civilians. His wife, Kim, is instantly put off by the backwoods town they will be spending time in, endlessly (and I do mean endlessly) pleading with Mike to turn the car around. Along for the ride is Danny, a businessman whose fortunes are on the downturn, and his age inappropriate, ex-stripper wife, Jeri. The group stops off at a small gas station in hopes of getting directions to Mike’s old family cabin. The gas station attendant, a mean old man covered in muck, tells them to get the hell out and never come back. “This is blood stalker country”, he tells them, just before our trio of gun toting, bandanna wearing goons make their first appearance.

Despite the locals (all 30 or so of them) all giving them the cold shoulder, Mike travels on, eventually reaching the cabin. They have dinner, make out, go skinny dipping, tell spook stories about Native American mythological monsters… the usual stuff. But when Mike goes to get something from the car, he notices large animal tracks on the hood. A little later, Mike and Kim hear a loud animal call, like a panther. After they settle down for the night, a large, hairy arm bursts through the wall, grabbing Jeri by the neck. Clearly under assault from something, Mike decides to go get help, only to have everyone, including a minister, turn him down. Meanwhile, back at the cabin, our helpless trio falls prey to whatever it is that lurks in the nearby woods.

It’s almost pointless to discuss the first hour of BLOOD STALKERS as nothing much really happens. There are some interesting juxtapositions and moments of not-so-subtle, ironic humor. Beautiful nature shots of clouds and fields are inter-cut with images of poisonous snakes. An intimate, tear filled discussion between Danny and Jeri occurs. He breaks down in tears over his business woes. She offers to start dancing in strip clubs again to help pay the bills. Danny doesn’t want his wife to do that, to be a sex object for lusty, dirty men. We immediately cut from this raw, emotional discussion to Kim swimming naked in a nearby lake, the camera soaking up the sight of Toni Crabtree’s bare breasts. That’s about the level of intellect this movie operates on during this first half.

The majority of this time is spent rehashing the same moments over and over. Kim says they should turn around. Mike tells her to shut her trap. Danny makes bad jokes. They stop to get directions only to be shot down (the only person to help them is a mentally challenged man who communicates through hand gestures and vocal tics, the “funny retard” character that unfortunately often pops up in all these films). Even when they reach the cabin, we spend most of our time watching characters mill about than actually do anything worth watching. It’s tedious time wasting, just padding to get the film up to feature length.

But once that hairy arm comes bursting through the wall of the cabin, BLOOD STALKERS undergoes a strange metamorphosis. The direction becomes noticeably more experimental, with multiple close ups giving way to slow motion action shots and off-kilter camera angles. The lighting becomes less naturalistic and more artificial. As he searches for help, Mike inexplicably comes across a church group having choir practice, the melodic singing underscoring Mike’s desperate pleas for help and his frantic return to the cabin. It’s like we slipped out of the workaday, low budget B horror film into the land of bizarre Southern Gothic. It’s a major tonal shift and a complete reversal of the visual style of the proceeding 60 minutes.

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the monsters terrorizing our protagonists are not monsters at all, just the trio of rednecks decked out in cheap Bigfoot costumes. But even this reveal (and the slaughter that proceeds it) is handled in a fashion not usually found in movies like this. Mike’s return to the cabin triggers the most shocking scene the film has to offer, a real gut punch of a moment that actually rendered me momentarily speechless (and made me remember just how stunning the final act of Sergio Martino’s TORSO was the first time I saw it). It’s a brave move for Morgan to make and the concluding action of the film doubles down on the nasty bloodshed that triggered it.

Make no mistake, the final 20 minutes of BLOOD STALKERS is damn good stuff. Like GOD’s BLOODY ACRE, the biggest complaint I have about the film is that it takes so damn long to get there. Half of the audience will check out well before it reaches the end of the second act. It would have helped if Morgan gave us characters with whole personalities instead of just flashes of internal conflict. Danny is worried about money. Jeri is torn between wanting to support her husband and not wanting to go back to stripping. Mike suffered emotional trauma in Vietnam. Kim… well, she just won’t stop whining. None of these character moments matter at all. They’re just brought up, explored for a few minutes, and then dropped. As a result, the characters (despite being well acted by an energetic cast) feel cardboard and flimsy, and the time spent with them doesn’t add up to much.

But once the film starts picking up speed and the main threat is revealed, BLOOD STALKERS becomes a rather excellent little horror movie. It’s difficult to stay angry about the slow, plodding first half of the film when it ends in such glorious fashion. After all, it isn’t how you start the game, it’s how you finish it that matters. BLOOD STALKERS might stumble out of the gate, but in its final act, it puts on one helluva good show.