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.

June 13, 2018

DEADLY DREAMS

As a young boy, Alex witnessed his parents being gunned down on Christmas Eve by an angry ex-business associate in hunting gear and a wolf mask. Now a young man in his late teens, Alex is an aspiring writer attending a local college. Haunted by recurring nightmares of the long dead, mask-wearing killer, Mr. Perkins, Alex’s life is in a bit of a shambles. Even his new relationship with a gorgeous young dancer named Maggie isn’t enough to set his mind at ease. As Alex’s nightmares worsen, his dream life begins spilling over into his waking life. He begins seeing Perkins skulking around his home at night.

His ability to tell fantasy from reality at an all time low, Alex begins to suspect that someone is out to kill him – or to drive him insane. Is it his slightly sadistic, pill popping best friend Danny? Or maybe it’s his older brother, a man desperate for his Alex to pour his considerable inheritance into the sinking family business? Or maybe Maggie is behind all of this? Or maybe, just maybe, Perkins has returned from the grave to finish what he started all those years ago…

At a brisk 79 minutes, Kristine Peterson’s 1988 directorial debut DEADLY DREAMS dances effortlessly back and forth between rubber reality psychological thriller and mean spirited slasher. It’s a clever film, one that could have been a real contender had it been gifted with a little more production money and proper distribution. The film might not be perfect (the interior design choices, especially Alex’s completely blue apartment, are oftentimes ghastly, and the decision to stage a steamy sex scene on a rotating bed was just… no), but DEADLY DREAMS is honestly one of the better unheard of horror movies from the 1980s, nowhere near a classic, but most definitely a cut above most cheaply made cookie cutter genre efforts.

The way Peterson handles the frequent collapse into nightmare logic is more akin to Luis Bunuel than Salvador Dali. While Dali wrapped his surrealism up in abstract symbology, Bunuel filmed his dreams, nightmares and surreal flourishes in the same purposefully detached manner that he filmed everything else. A shot of ants pouring from a hole in a hand is as matter-of-factly presented as a shot of uptight jerks standing around a dinner table. In DEADLY DREAMS, there is no clear cut delineation between nightmare and waking life, no sudden transitions in the color palette from blues and yellows to baby shit brown and puke green. No slow motion or Dutch angles. No odd shifts in the sound design.

This helps Peterson firmly align the audience with Alex’s cracking psyche. Dreams within dreams, dreams which seem to portend future events, dreams which seem to be occurring within reality… this is all blended into the film rather well, so well in fact that early on I expected the final twist of the film to simply be “Alex really is insane. The end”. What we get instead is a kind of twist within a twist that strongly parallels many early giallo films, especially the Umberto Lenzi gialli of the late 1960s and early 1970s, many starring Carroll Baker.

It isn’t really a spoiler to say that someone is indeed after Alex’s inheritance and is using his post traumatic stress against him in an attempt to drive him crazy. That will undoubtedly be evident by the 30 minute mark. It’s everything that comes after the pronouncement of motive that took me by surprise. Like Lenzi’s PARANOIA, the film doesn’t hesitate to follow through on its premise. It also doesn’t feel the need to call it quits after revealing the double cross, instead using that bit of narrative development to propel itself towards a rather stunning (though a bit daft) triple cross that sends the film out on a spectacular high note.

The blend of psychological thriller and slasher film works well for most of the film, though if you’re looking for a body count, you should most definitely look elsewhere. Most of the murders are revealed to be nightmares and many times the victim in those murder set pieces is Alex. His parent’s deaths are replayed three or four times from various angles and one unexpected death occurs completely off screen. In other words, instead of watching multiple people die, you’re really only watching two or three people die, usually over and over again. That isn’t to say that the film lacks teeth. Some of the nightmare death scenes are in fact pretty jarring, especially one involving a knife to the face.

But DEADLY DREAMS doesn’t want to be a body count film. It’s a psychological thriller through and through, one with a small cast of well defined characters and a tightly crafted, intimate story full of reversals, betrayals and lies. It’s a well acted and well executed little film, one that definitely deserves rediscovery and reappraisal.

June 8, 2018

THE UNDERTAKER

Calling THE UNDERTAKER an oddity is a bit of an understatement. All but abandoned when the production ran out of money and lead actor Joe Spinell kicked the bucket, this low rent slasher film (with no fewer than four directors, here credited under the collective pseudonym Franco Steffanino) first hit DVD a few years back, only to be later reissued on Blu-ray by the venerable cult maniacs at Vinegar Syndrome. The Code Red DVD was my first experience with the film and I was dumbfounded by how much footage from other B-movies was incorporated into the proceedings to fill dead air (in particular, footage from Wallace Fox’s 1942 schlocker THE CORPSE VANISHES appears again and again). Watching the Vinegar Syndrome release was like watching an entirely different movie, albeit one with abrupt and sudden shifts to VHS quality inserts, a compromise needed to present THE UNDERTAKER in a somewhat complete form.

The movie issued on Code Red DVD barely made any sense. It was haphazardly constructed, sliding into absurdity at the drop of a hat. Whole scenes appeared to have been out of place or improperly positioned in the edit. Watching the Vinegar Syndrome release definitely helped smooth over the rougher edges, but those lapses of logic and strange tonal shifts persisted. This was of course because the film had never been finished and while all of the major set pieces seemed to be in place, it was clear that the interstitial stuff – the transitions, establishing shots, inserts of people entering or leaving rooms – was simply never filmed or was lost to time.

As such, we have a movie where our lead villain, the necrophiliac undertaker Roscoe, has a brief dialogue exchange with a comely co-ed in broad daylight. A single cut later and he is standing outside of a woman’s house in the middle of the night. As Roscoe spies on the shapely lass cooking a hamburger in a frying pan, we cut again. We’re now standing inside the kitchen and Roscoe has mysteriously teleported inside with us. There are dozens and dozens of these moments in the film, noticeable gaffs in which characters seemingly teleport around locations or magically summon implements of bodily destruction from the ether.

The real question to ask is does any of this detract from the experience of watching a movie as goddamn bizarre as this? More on that in a moment. For right now, it’s best to summarize what passes for a plot.

Roscoe runs the local morgue. He’s also a necrophiliac serial killer responsible for a sizable amount of disappearances over the past few months. Roscoe has a nephew named Nick and recently, Nick has become suspicious of his uncle’s behavior. In a strange twist of movie fate, his anthropology professor, Pam Hayes, is currently teaching her class all about cultural traditions of necrophilia. Instead of going to the police, Nick partners up with his teacher to investigate Roscoe’s after hours activities. When Roscoe catches Nick snooping around, he quickly dispatches his nephew and sets his sights on Pam.

While all of this is going on, Roscoe attends horror movie showings, the local cops poke around crime scenes and discuss how there was “traces of semen on the intestinal tissue” of a victim (their words, not mine), a security guard with delusions of grandeur goes about solving the case himself, and an old man out for a jog pratfalls into a puddle of bloody muck.

So yeah, this movie is kind of a mess. Spinell’s performance is all over the place, giving us half-maniacal serial killer and half… well, plain old MANIAC. Sometimes, he likes to babble to the corpses he has hanging from meat hooks in the basement. In these moments, he’s essentially portraying Frank Zito in a lab coat. At other times, he’s playing something akin to a mad scientist, often talking about his laboratory as if he’s engaging in science of the ‘gone amok’ variety. It’s not difficult to guess on which shooting days Spinell showed up drunk. His performance, always the strongest suit of any horror film he appeared in, is so erratic and undisciplined here that you might think this film had four goddamn directors all of whom seemed to want to make a different film.

And that’s exactly what appears to be the case here. The film vacillates wildly between softcore porn (virtually every actress is unclothed at some point), graphic gore film, police procedural and run of the mill killer thriller. You can kind of see individual threads begin to appear. Roscoe states that the damn Surgeon General and popular diet fads are eating into his business. Maybe this was going to be a black comedy at some point before it was deemed necessary to have Joe Spinell rape the corpse of a woman he just stabbed to death? Nick’s rather early departure seems like a nod to PSYCHO. The cops actually do cop stuff here, unlike your usual low budget horror film. When Roscoe takes in a nice Satanic horror film at the local theater, we’re not given any indication that the Satanic ritual we’re watching is not actually happening in the film, a little scene that leads me to believe that someone in the crew of directors had at least one meta bone in their body. What exactly was this movie supposed to be?

I have absolutely no clue, but what I can say is that watching THE UNDERTAKER unravel was far less painful than I expected. Because there is no single guiding vision behind it, the film feels positively schizophrenic. The missing bits of interstitial stuff gives it a slipshod grasp on reality. It’s sometimes even difficult to know when one day ends and another day begins in this film. It’s a stream of consciousness feel, an accidental bit of art house wankery that just adds to the overall strangeness of the proceedings.

The kills are bloody and mean, the acting is just the right shade of excruciating, and the abundant female flesh caked the whole thing in lovely, lovely grime. It’s an ugly film and a borderline mad experiment, one that would have probably been ruined had filming reached completion. Because the absurdity of it, the ‘work in progress’ feel, is what make this otherwise mundane “been there, done that” two cent shocker into a genuine curiosity.

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*** You can grab a copy of THE UNDERTAKER from Vinegar Syndrome HERE.
I was not provided a copy for review. I bought it with my own damn money, but Vinegar Syndrome deserves support and links help with search results. So fuck it, there's a link. ***