April 27, 2016


JASON X, which should have been called FRIDAY THE 13TH, PART 10: JASON TAKES SPACE, is a stupid movie. I know, right? I can't believe it either!

But does that matter? Weren't ALL the FRIDAY THE 13TH movies stupid? Weren't they all filled with half-characters who make horrible decisions before meeting their maker in gruesome fashion? Weren't they all filled with contrivances and plot holes that destroy any sense of series continuity? Weren't they all annoyingly formulaic and utterly obvious? Yes, they were and that raises an interesting question.

Why the hell is this movie so damn fun to watch while the rest of the series (with a few exceptions) is just a plodding, dull, uninteresting slog to get through? Well, sit back, folks, and read along as I try to figure that out for myself.

So what happens in this incredibly stupid movie? It starts in the year 2010 at the Crystal Lake Research Lab, a military-science-whatever research facility in desperate need of some overhead lights. Rowan, the gorgeous head of the lab (who must be suffering from terrible eye strain after spending her days working in a research laboratory lit by what appears to be a single florescent lighting fixture), is told by a military scientist that they will be transferring the “specimen” to yet another research lab in Scranton for further tests. What specimen is this? Why, it's Jason Voorhees, of course. Jason is chilling inside a dark room with about a billion open doors leading out of it, wrapped up in chains everyone knows he can break, but that's fine as he'll NEVER be able to take out the single 19 year old security guard tasked with keeping an eye on him, right?

Wrong. Jason breaks free, kills a whole bunch of people (including David Cronenberg), and chases Rowan downstairs into the cryogenic storage room. Rowan manages to force Jason inside a freezing chamber and flips the switch. Unfortunately for Rowan, Jason's machete is made out of Adamantium so he's able to stab her in the stomach through the 20-inch thick steel door of his cryo-tube. They both freeze to death. The end.

Four centuries later, a group of students (along with their professor and an android who, for some reason, still needs to wear a ventilation mask even though she's a goddamn robot) discover the cryogenic chamber. And though we the audience are shocked to find out that no one ever bothered to go back inside this state of the art research facility in the 400+ years since 2010, the students are shocked to discover a perfectly preserved Rowan and a nice Jasonsicle inside the cryo-tube. They take both of them back to their research vessel, the Grendel. While a Bridgette Wilson clone gets to work digging around in Jason's eye socket, the rest of the crew unfreeze Rowan and use nanomachines to fix the gaping wound in her gut. When she wakes up, she asks how long she's been in cryostasis. The professor tells her that the year is 2455. Rowan takes a deep breath and says “2455? That's like”… long pause as she struggles with basic subtraction… “over 400 years”. Thank you, movie, for doing that complicated math for me.

Anyway, Jason wakes up because two teens are having noisy sex down the hall. He gives the Bridgette Wilson clone a liquid nitrogen facial, kills a teen or two and then does some stalky-slashy battle with a whole platoon of space marines. After he kills 99% of them off, Jason kills the pilot, causing the Grendel to barrel straight through the space station Solaris. Even though Solaris explodes in a big ball of flames, the Grendel survives the crash with little more than a dented bumper, which means the movie can continue on. Yay!!!

Lots of “what do we do?”s later, the nerdy guy named Tsunaron (because this is a sci-fi film everyone has a name that sounds like a Peruvian sex toy; except the pilot who is just named Lou) reprograms his nippleless android girlfriend KM-14 into a killing machine. She blows the high holy fuck out of Jason and leaves his headless corpse lying in the medical bay. That turns out to be a pretty big oversight because the damaged nanomachine module comes roaring to life, reviving Jason. Only this time, he's half machine with a nice metal mask and two eyeballs for the first time since 198fuck wait… I forgot. They gave him two eyes in Part 6 even though he lost one of them in Part 4. Meh, whatever. Continuity is for pussies.

So yeah, this movie is stupid. I know, right? I can't believe it either!

JASON X was produced just so Sean Cunningham could kill some time. With nearly every unemployed screenwriter in Hollywood turning in a draft of FREDDY VS. JASON, Cunningham felt that releasing another standalone FRIDAY THE 13TH film would keep the property hot (apparently Cunningham never got the memo concerning the dismal box office returns for Part 8 and JASON GOES TO HELL) until someone at New Line picked a number out of a hat to decide on a script for their shitty crossover film. And thus JASON X was born. The initial script was written by Todd Farmer and then was subsequently rewritten by every unemployed screenwriter in Hollywood that didn't get the FREDDY VS JASON gig. Not really, but the script was under constant revision, even during production. It was a horror film, then a comedic horror film, then an action film, then a horror film, and so on and so on. The fact that this movie makes any sense whatsoever is a miracle.

It's this weirdly shifting tone that makes JASON X such a joy to watch. Because you can see the seams. You can see where the film WAS serious but is now goofy, and that conflicting tone adds a layer of genuine campiness to the entire film. It's the kind of campiness that can only come from a film made to be more serious than it actually is, like no one on screen is in on the joke. Everything about it feels contrived and forced because it is contrived and forced, but the formulaic FRIDAY THE 13TH narrative, tropes and cliches clashes against the space setting in such a way that it raises the bar for slasher inanity to such a dizzying height that you cannot help but sit there and watch it all go down with a big shit eating grin on your face. It's stupid. So very, very stupid. But like a dog that constantly runs into a glass door every time it sees a squirrel, its not the kind of stupid that raises your blood pressure. It's the kind of stupid that encourages genuine endearment. Part of me loves this stupid piece of shit film.

I would actually complain about how just stupid this film is were it not for the fact that it knows exactly how stupid it is. I would complain about how you cannot actually stem a hull breach just by shutting a door or rant about why no one ever bothered to put their dead friends into the magical nanomachine chamber that can clearly bring dead things back to life. I would complain about how the chick that gets sucked through the hole in the space ship wall would have died minutes before that ever happened due to collapsed lungs or how every gun in this movie seems to contain an infinite amount of bullets. I would complain about how KM-14 winces in pain when she falls, about how Rowan is basically a non-character even though she's the lead, or about any number of things. But why bother? This is just a stupid film.

And you know what? It's fun as fuck. Once the half hour mark hits, it's off and running with very little downtime. The kills are gnarly, none of the characters are annoying, the sets look great (even though the CGI doesn't), Jason looks good both before and after his Terminator makeover, and the whole thing feels leaps and bounds above your typical franchise entry in terms of overall quality. It's self aware, self referential, focused on being entertaining rather than self important (none of the abused child back story bullshit from 7 and 8 is here) and it's just carried off with a kind of easygoing swagger that I appreciate. It's a Saturday morning cartoon. It's a high concept slash-a-thon that manages to be bloody and gory without being mean spirited. It manages to operate as both a B movie sci-fi flick and a bog standard slasher movie. It's ALIEN without the pretentious bullshit. It's FRIDAY THE 13TH only with a pulse. It's sugary sweet, brain rotting candy. It's Jason in space. That's pretty much all it is. It's just fun.

And stupid. Did I mention that this a stupid movie?

Unfortunately, no one at New Line Cinema gave a shit about it. JASON X finished production around the time Michael De Luca, the longtime head of the studio, was kicked to the curb. JASON X was disregarded and forgotten, sitting on a shelf for a couple of years before being dumped unceremoniously into the theaters right between THE SCORPION KING and SPIDER-MAN. It was doomed from the start. But enough time has gone by that the film has gained a small cult audience and that alone kind of baffles me. Because this IS a FRIDAY THE 13TH film. It's not much different from any other film in the franchise. It's just more fun. So why is this film not more popular among fans? Is it because of the setting? Is it because it doesn't take itself seriously? I'm asking here. That's a genuine question.

Why is a movie in which an undead zombie serial killer fights a telekinetic teenage girl, a film that was savaged by the MPAA ratings board, more popular than a balls-out action slasher with all its gory goodness intact? I really don't get it. Maybe it's just because I'm not deluded enough to think the FRIDAY THE 13TH franchise is serious filmmaking. This franchise needed a counterpoint to all the gritty shit and mean spirited nastiness of the early 80s franchise entries and JASON X delivered that counterpoint. Moreover, it did it without pandering to the SCREAM crowd. It takes everything that makes a FRIDAY THE 13TH film a FRIDAY THE 13TH film and celebrates it. JASON X isn't a good film. It isn't even a passable film. But it has a real sense of jubilation to it, an energy behind it, a sense of appreciation for the foundations of the franchise. It doesn't attempt to be serious. It attempts to be fun and spooky and amusing. When the credits roll on this film, I'm 8 years old again, sitting on the couch after watching a FRIDAY THE 13TH film, happy as can be that I just watched a handful of people die at the hands of a mute mongoloid in a hockey mask. My world wasn't blown, my consciousness was not expanded. But I had fun. 

And JASON X is fun.

April 21, 2016


The movie begins with the Prank Gone Wrong. A group of frat boys, led by a medical student everyone calls Doc, trick a nerdy Freshmen pledge named Kenny into thinking that he's about to score with the lovely Alana. Kenny strips down to his tighty whities and slinks into bed, cozying up to a supple, womanly figure draped in a bed sheet. As Alana stands off screen begging for him to kiss her, Kenny makes his move, only to discover that it isn't Alana beneath that bed sheet. It's the limbless, off-color corpse of a woman. This naturally causes Kenny to have a massive freak-out, leading to his hospitalization in a mental institution.

An unspecified amount of time later, Doc, his girlfriend Mitchy, Alana and her boyfriend Moe, and about four dozen other students board a train for a once in a lifetime pre-graduation bash. There's booze, food, a couple of New Wave bands and even a magician. Everything is set for this to be one hell of a party. There's only one problem. Someone else is aboard the train. Someone who doesn't belong there. Someone eager to spill blood.

TERROR TRAIN is often lumped in with PROM NIGHT in discussions of the slasher film. I understand why. Both belong to the first wave of slasher films, both were released in 1980, and both star Jamie Lee Curtis. But the odd thing is, while TERROR TRAIN is the better of the two films, PROM NIGHT is the one people remember more, or at least more fondly. If I asked you what the stand out moment in PROM NIGHT was, there's a damn good chance that you'll tell me all about the scene in which a disembodied head skids across a busy dance floor while dozens of teens scream in shock. That's an impactful, memorable scene, one that just screams “1980's slasher film”. TERROR TRAIN doesn't really have a scene that's comparable to that. It's a film more invested in trying to tell a good twisty-turny murder mystery than it is about sending its audience into a gore-induced paroxysm of glee.

That is both the blessing and the curse of this film, because while the more serious minded nature of the narrative makes TERROR TRAIN into a film you can become genuinely invested in, the tropes and mechanisms of the slasher film require leaps of logic so large that they can, at a moment's notice, reduce even the most genuine attempt at drama to little more than a bad joke.

The entirety of this film (after the opening set-up) is set on a train. This accomplishes the seclusion that is a necessary component of the slasher film (most slasher films are set in an isolated environment, all the better to avoid police interference while heightening the chances of any one particular character coming across the killer), but it creates a strange limbo in terms of story logic. There are only two directions you can move on a train, forwards or backwards. It's never clear where exactly we are on the train, how many cars there are or where any one character is in relation to another. So when characters need to be killed off to move the story along, it's always a crap shoot over whether or not those murders could have even been pulled off to begin with, let alone exactly where they are occurring in the first place.

To better illustrate this, at one point they decide to lock the car they think is housing the killer. We can assume from the direction the characters are ushered out of the train car, this car lies somewhere in the middle of the procession, but there are several scenes after the lock down that feature characters at the FRONT of the train, even though we saw them moving towards the BACK of the train. Worse, when the conductor and his crew search the locked train car, one of the exits appears to be at the very end of the train with no other cars behind it. Simply put, the geographic reality of this film leaves a lot to be desired.

There's also little annoyances here and there, like the way the killer locks a bathroom door from the inside so no one can discover a corpse. How the hell did they accomplish that? Maybe that's why the magician in the film (played by David Copperfield) seems to possess actual, literal magical powers. He can pull off a disappearance in a crowded train car only to appear standing with the audience 20 feet away. This magician is the only red herring the film offers up and even then, the idea that the magician is somehow Kenny, the tormented pledge-turned-nutjob, falls apart the second you compare their faces. The film also sets up sub-plots that go nowhere. While all of the characters in TERROR TRAIN manage to be likeable and believable, absolutely nothing is done to give them actual lives outside of that train. The most interesting bit of characterization in the entire film is the way Doc goes out of his way to put Moe in a sticky situation with a drunk floozy in hopes of breaking up Moe's relationship with Alana. Why does he do that? Well, the film hints at a homosexual attraction. It gives Doc a profoundly out-of-character moment where he tells Moe that if his relationship with Alana ever goes south, Moe can always be with him. Moe laughs it off as just some bro talk, but Hart Bochner's delivery in that scene sells it as something far more tender and well-meaning. All of the characterization and personality building happens in the periphery of the main narrative. So if you don't care about these people within the first five minutes, chances are you won't care at all.

But despite some character shortcomings and logical flops, the central murder mystery of TERROR TRAIN is really compelling, absorbing stuff. It's a compact, focused and well paced thriller that contains more than a few genuinely spooky moments. It also has balls. Like DEEP RED, you could easily spot the murderer if you just pay close enough attention. The film doesn't even really go out of its way to hide that reveal. It's a testament to how interesting the central plot device of a killer jumping from costume to costume in the middle of this giant costume ball/New Year's Eve party actually is and just how well director Roger Spottiswoode pulls off his misdirections. The costumes are meant to hide the identity of the killer from the audience, but there are several scenes in the film where the killer stands in plain view with only the most minuscule amount of costuming on, face completely unhidden, but because of the way the film conditions us to regard as a threat any character whose face CANNOT be seen, it never occurs to us to actually pay attention to the characters whose faces CAN be seen.

I mentioned that the characters are all likeable and believable, and they really are. The cast of characters on display here are not your normal, grating slasher stereotypes. The comic relief character dies well before the train departs and each character is given an internal motivation that remains constant throughout, if a bit stifled in favor of plot momentum. The score is a PSYCHO-inspired, perfectly serviceable creation and the film contains relatively little excess gore. But the real star on display here is Spottiswoode. TERROR TRAIN is a good looking film (thanks in no small part to the work of cinematographer John Alcott, a frequent collaborator of Stanley Kubrick), awash in low key lighting and deep, impenetrable shadows. The film feels like it was visually inspired by HALLOWEEN, unlike films such as FRIDAY THE 13TH which failed to recognize that it wasn't the formulaic structure that made that film great, but the look and feel of it. TERROR TRAIN has its fair share of cheap jump scares, but it also has a definite, effective mood and a genuine understanding of the importance of atmosphere. It might be too anemic and a tad too quiet for those who want more of a body count film, but if you're looking for a good, tense ride on the Murder Mystery Express, you could do far, far worse than spending 100 minutes with TERROR TRAIN.

April 14, 2016


Clive is an Italian diplomat married to what can only be described as a walking bag of annoyance. His rich wife, Diana, treats him like a child, pestering him about his choice of clothing, his schedule, his health and, most importantly to Clive, his doting over his tankful of exotic fish. Worse, she's cheating on him with Franz, a German friend whose newly opened clinic was bankrolled by Diana. In-between fantasizing about murdering his wife in a variety of ways and gritting his teeth during awkward dinners with Franz, Clive begins to hatch a scheme to change his life for the better. Warned that his social situation is in danger if he files for a divorce, Clive settles for the next best option. He has in his possession an official paper that would prove that Franz worked for the Germans (read: the Nazis) during the war, a charge that would land him in prison. So he offers Franz a way out: murder Diana and dismember her body, placing the bits and pieces inside two large, black suitcases, and he'll get rid of the paper.

His back against the wall, Franz agrees, delivering the suitcases to Clive in the dead of night. Clive then sets off to Tangier to dump the suitcases into pits of acid located at a tannery owned by his now-deceased wife's family. Aboard the plane, Clive meets several women, most notably Elena, a fashion model on her way to a job in the city. Though he has a few close calls with the police in the airport, Clive manages to make his way to the acid pits once the tannery closes for the evening. He dumps the first suitcase and is primed to dump the second when he suddenly realizes that something is very, very wrong. The second suitcase does not belong to him. It belongs to a woman, possibly one of the three women he met on the plane. It also hasn't escaped his attention that one of the cops he met at the airport has been following him around. With the walls slowly closing in around him and cops on his trail, Clive rushes to find his lost suitcase and dump it in the acid before he's found out. But a strange letter containing damning evidence is soon delivered to him from an anonymous source. It might already be too late for Clive.

Released sometime in early 1970, Alfonso Brescia's awkwardly titled giallo, YOUR SWEET BODY TO KILL (it sounds better in Italian), has much more in common with the gialli of the late 60s than it does with many of its same-year contemporaries. Before Argento codified the giallo film with his 1970 debut THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, the giallo film took many forms, from bloodless sex thrillers to cutting edge, mod-friendly pieces of pop art. The giallo was not yet a genre creatively strangled by murder mystery tropes. They were crime thrillers, first and foremost, sometimes not even featuring a single scene of physical violence. YOUR SWEET BODY TO KILL is one of those films unconcerned with bloody violence. Sure, people die during the films running time, but that isn't the focus of the narrative. This isn't a film about stopping a murder or witnessing a murder. It's about getting away with one.

In the same way Hitchcock decided to twist the audience in knots with PSYCHO and turn a murder accomplice into its main character, Brescia's film gives us Clive, a man whose murder (or rather the murder he orchestrated) is presented to us as an almost justified action. Diana is such a loathsome, self important, nagging, despicable creature that her murder barely registers as a murder at all. It comes across more as an act of vindication on the part of Clive, a freeing of himself, like a slave breaking his chains. What do we care if Franz had to be the one to cut her to pieces? He's a Nazi sympathizer. Clive, on the other hand, just wanted to pick out his own clothes and feed his fish and make his own schedule and be an actual adult human being for once in his miserable, anxiety-ridden life. He's such a pathetically castrated weakling that you can't help but feel sympathy for him, hoping beyond hope that he can toss that last suitcase in the acid and be free to live his life. The idea that he could be caught at any time reverses our inner sense of justice. In the same way we the audience shared Norman's anxiety over watching Marion's car slowly sink into the swamp, the constant sightings of cops and delivering of incriminating evidence shreds our nerves here. It's a delicious kind of moral reversal.

But well before the giallo elements kick into high gear during the third act, Brescia (one of the worst Italian genre filmmakers of the 1970s, though you wouldn't know that by watching this film) pulls off an even more impressive trick. The first two acts of YOUR SWEET BODY TO KILL are surprisingly funny and not in the unintentional kind of way. This is a deliriously, wickedly absurd film and it knows it. From the daydreams of tossing his wife over an overpass to the fantasy of gunning down cops James Bond-style at the airport, Clive's inner fantasy world is equal parts childish role play and full blown anguished scream. The film goes to such great lengths to infantilize this man that the whole film becomes this weird pseudo-comedy-cum-revenge film where Diana's swapping out of Clive's precious fish tank for a cartoonish painting of a cat licking it's lips is treated as this incredibly vicious personal attack, like setting someone's mother on fire. When Clive finally sits down with Elena in Tangier, the two start talking about, of all things, fish and the conversation, mixed with the carefully crafted close-ups of lips and eyes, comes off as a really bizarre scene of softcore foreplay. There's a scene of Clive walking through the airport behind his valet, desperately trying to squeegee away the drops of blood leaking out of his suitcase with his loafer-clad feet as everyone watches him with equal parts fascination and confusion.

The first two thirds of this film are so incredibly engaging and strangely hilarious that the descent into thriller territory during the final act feels like a massive letdown. Giallo films are not known for their coherent endings, most of which rely on bizarre reversals of logic or deus ex machinas to wrap up their stories, and YOUR SWEET BODY TO KILL is no exception. It all goes how you think it will go, from the last minute arrival of a familiar face to the expected reveal of who was sending Clive those letters. It doesn't make much sense and quite frankly, that doesn't really matter, because it's the journey that's important, right? Not the destination. And this film is one hell of a great trip. It's a really enjoyable film, one that balances the humor and absurdity with genuine tension and spot-on characterization. Everything about this film works even if it's not quite the giallo you would expect it to be.

Seek this one out for a good time.