May 25, 2017


Back in the 1970s and the 1980s, it wasn't all that uncommon for distributors or producers to buy small market films for the purpose of re-editing. Roberta and Michael Findlay's SLAUGHTER is perhaps the most well known of these films. A Manson Family based schlocker, SLAUGHTER would be re-edited and re-purposed by distributor Allan Shackleton into SNUFF, complete with a new ending purportedly showing the actual murder of a crew member. It wasn't uncommon for films, both domestic and foreign, to have new hardcore sex scenes or quick bits of newly filmed violence cut into them, all for the purposes of making a few more bucks at the drive-ins or the grindhouses. Hell, even films like MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH have hardcore sex versions available for viewing.

Donn Davison's harmless bit of hicksploitation, SHANTYTOWN HONEYMOON, received the re-edit treatment from none other than lazy hack director Fred Olen Ray in 1986. Only Ray's idea of a re-edit leaves quite a lot to be desired. The added material meant to spice up this otherwise dull endeavor consists of a few moments of John Carradine reading Bible verses off of cue cards, presumably because Ray couldn't find anyone willing to fuck on camera. Davison's film is otherwise, for better or for worse, unmolested. Believe me when I say that the film needed a helluva lot more than a nearly catatonic John Carradine to save it.

The film also received the obligatory re-title. What was shit out onto VHS by Troma (because of course it was) was re-titled DEMENTED DEATH FARM MASSACRE (because of course it was). Now if you were a horror fan in the 1980s, you probably knew better than to get your hopes up for any movie with the word “massacre” in the title unless that film was directed by Tobe Hooper. "The Blah Blah Massacre” was the ultimate giveaway. Look at films like THE NEW YORK CENTERFOLD MASSACRE, NAIL GUN MASSACRE, MOUNTAINTOP MOTEL MASSACRE, CLASS REUNION MASSACRE, ZOMBIE ISLAND MASSACRE… You knew the movie was going to be terrible just from the title. The only “massacre” movie that isn't terrible, apart from Hooper's films, is the aforementioned MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH. In fact, if you're going to watch one “massacre” movie that just so happens to star someone from the Carradine family, make it that one.

I guess I should explain what this film is about, huh? Well, there's a quartet of jewel thieves (none of whom look capable of tying their shoe laces let alone robbing a jewelry store) on the run from the law. There's Philip, the leader of the group, with his bad British accent. There's Kirk, the muscle, with his bad attitude. And then there's Karen and Susan, with their empty heads and large breasts. The quartet takes refuge at the home of a bitter, religious moonshiner (and drunk) named Harlan. Harlan has himself a young, gorgeous wife named Ruby Sue, who was sold to him by a friend for 200 bucks. In short order, Harlan takes a shining to the busty Susan, Karen ends up dead after catching Kirk bedding Ruby Sue, and Philip decides to muscle in on Harlan's moonshine business. Hijinks and murders ensue.

There really isn't much to say about DEMENTED DEATH FARM MASSACRE. There isn't some well hidden bevy of meaning behind the whole thing (apart from “greed is bad”), nor is there anything truly special about how the film operates. It tries hard to convince you that what you're about to witness is going to be terrible and traumatic. You might even get a few LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT vibes during the early moments of the film. But despite all the creepy music that accompanies our quartet of villains as they stroll through the woods, the film is far too rooted in hicksploitation to ever really cross into thriller territory.

Hicksploitation was far more interested in softcore porn than it was in the more serious thriller territory. Take a look at Harry Novak's back catalog for better examples of this kind of thing, movies like SASSY SUE, THE PIGKEEPER'S DAUGHTER or COUNTRY CUZZINS. There's a bit of those movies floating around in the DNA of DEMENTED DEATH FARM MASSACRE. The characters are all blatant stereotypes, written and performed with as much restraint as a cat in a yarn factory. The women, all of whom are easy on the eyes, spend their time in as little clothing as possible. Harlan is every hicksploitation character rolled up into one unappealing package. It looks like your average hicksploitation film, sounds like your average hicksploitation film and acts like your average hicksploitation film. But it isn't nearly as fun as your average hicksploitation film. Because for as poorly made as the majority of those films were, they were often quite a lot of fun to watch. They were rarely mean spirited, even more rarely without simple pleasures like groan worthy sight gags and plentiful nudity.

But DEMENTED DEATH FARM MASSACRE isn't fun. There are attempts at comedy here, but those attempts fall flat. There are attempts at shocking violence, but those attempts are undermined by the cheap effects (ie. the blood really is just ketchup here) and poor delivery. The two sides of the story, the sex-driven hicksploitation and the murder-driven crime thriller, never meet somewhere in the middle, and as a result the entire film feels disjointed, dull and dreadful. Had Davison decided to more actively pursue one single kind of film here, the movie could have been an entertaining little romp. All the pieces are there for a solid bit of exploitation goodness. The beautiful, busty ladies. The campy villains. The clash of country living vs the big city life. Dozens of good hicksploitation films were built on the backs of those elements and dozens of solid pieces of exploitation thriller fluff were too.

But DEMENTED DEATH FARM MASSACRE doesn't commit to any one thing and as a result, fails at virtually everything. It isn't an intolerable film, I will say that. I didn't exactly hate it. But for the entire 85 minute running time, all I wanted to do was go watch Rene Bond hose herself down in the backyard or go watch Leslie Lee chop Jack Canon to bits. This is a “me too” film and unfortunately your time is simply better spent watching one of the dozens upon dozens of other films that did this kind of thing better. But if you're hard up, and I mean flat out dying for a hicksploitation fix… well, DEMENTED DEATH FARM MASSACRE ain't gonna kill you, but it ain't gonna leave you feeling satisfied either.

May 20, 2017


In an attempt to make ALIEN: COVENANT seem like the smartest film I watched all day, I spent 90 minutes of my evening with Umberto Lenzi's 1980 cartoony trash epic NIGHTMARE CITY. And whaddya know? It worked. Suddenly, the sheer stupidity of Ridley Scott's second-in-a-row failure looked like the scribblings of a young Stephen Hawking. And maybe that's what Scott was going for, a movie that wouldn't look like a large clusterfuck of bad ideas if you just placed it next to a lower budgeted clusterfuck of bad ideas. 

Probably not. 

But to be fair, NIGHTMARE CITY does not, unlike ALIEN: COVENANT, pretend that it is a film full of grandiose ideas. Lenzi's shocker is just a full-throated scream of random syllables, like the sound a belligerent drunk makes when you play keep away with his last bottle of Wild Turkey. It doesn't make a lick of sense, but then again it doesn't want to. An intelligent story (hell, even an intelligible story) isn't what this film wants to tell. It just wants to indulge in a long parade of bloody atrocities and bared breasts. In other words, it just wants you to have a good time.

So what exactly is NIGHTMARE CITY all about, you ask? Well, it's about a zombie outbreak. Kind of. Not really. In the same way that Danny Boyle's 28 DAYS LATER took the all zombie movie tropes but left the zombies themselves behind, Lenzi's film gives us irradiated men and women, mostly dressed in cardigans and blazers, that cut a bloody swath across an unnamed European city. Our lead character is a reporter named Dean, a rather useless chap trying to keep his doctor wife, Anna, safe from harm. There's also a military commander named Murchison and his second in command, Warren. They get to do things as well. And there's some guy named Bob. Every movie needs a guy named Bob, right?

OK, look, there isn't much of a story here. The majority of the film follows Dean and Anna as they traverse several locations, first a TV station, then a hospital, then a gas station, then a church, then an amusement park… That's about it. We periodically check in on the military and science types who all ramble on about causes, effects, possible quarantine procedures, maybe a cure. This is all stuff that really should have been cut from the film. Every time a military man or scientist steps up to the mic, the film reaches new heights of stupidity. For example, when a scientist informs Murchison that the infected people all possess “tissue regeneration”, the decorated military man asks him to dumb it down, as if that isn't quite self explanatory enough. The scientist then goes on to explain that as a result of their ability to regenerate tissue, weapons cannot destroy the infected, even though he's standing in front of an examination table adorned with the body of a clearly dead infected individual. Then he says something along the lines of “shoot 'em in the head, that'll work” even though he just got done telling us...

Yeah, this movie is dumb.

I mean, we don't need a thorough explanation for this shit. “Radiation dunnit” works fine here. I've never understood why people even bother trying to explain just what it is that's causing a zombie outbreak. Zombies are fictional creatures. Zombie viruses are fictional constructs. Any attempt to explain them using real world science isn't going to work. Honestly, neither does “radiation dunnit” as we've understood the effects of radiation poisoning for decades. If you're completely ignorant of science (and if you are, you'll probably enjoy the last two entries in the ALIEN franchise), this might sound plausible. But let's face it, it isn't. It's just dumb.

But I like Godzilla movies, damn it, so who am I to judge?

If we leave aside the ahem academics of the film, what we're left with is a damn near non-stop barrage of clumsily charming action set pieces. At times, the film looks more like a riot simulator than a not-quite-zombie flick. The irradiated individuals in NIGHTMARE CITY might have lost their ability to speak, but they sure as shit didn't lose their ability to bludgeon, strangle, stab, ax, shoot, club, throttle and beat the ever living shit out of everyone they come across. They even drive cars, set up ambushes, cut telephone lines, purposefully and sadistically torture their victims. In other words, they're total dicks, gouging out eyes and ripping open blouses with gleeful abandon. It's during these moments that NIGHTMARE CITY shines in a 'so bad it's good' kind of way. There's a scene early on involving a group of ghouls massacring a bunch of spandex-clad TV workout models that ranks pretty high on my personal “dude, what the fuck am I watching?' list. TVs explode like bombs whenever they're thrown, heads pop like balloons left and right, breasts are chopped off, an eye is sloppily ripped out with a fireplace poker… It's just an awesome parade of slapsticky gore (emphasis on 'sticky').

But Jesus H. Christ on a Sybian saddle, does it drag at times. NIGHTMARE CITY is a long, hard slog of a film to get through, mostly because the film keeps stopping to get some military bullshit out of the way. That's the stuff we don't care about. I mean, we don't exactly care about Dean or Anna either, but the entire reason we're watching a movie called NIGHTMARE CITY is to stuff our faces full of sugary, gory goodness, not listen to people talk about pseudo-scientific jargon or wax philosophic about good and evil in a world full of irradiated pricks with no respect for the personal boundaries of others. We want people getting shot in the face. We want random titties for no good reason. We want chaos, not boner killing bullshit about molecular regeneration. And when chaos is on the menu, NIGHTMARE CITY is a hell of a good time.

But yeah, it's stupid. So very, very stupid. Though I can forgive it, because unlike the other movie I watched today, it didn't try to sell me a bottle full of piss by claiming it was fine champagne.

May 16, 2017


Shot-on-video horror films are easy to shit on. They're weekend projects, usually made because someone came into a little bit of money. You would gather up a few local theater group actors, toss together a quick script, and hope that what you ended up with filled a gap in the market. In the 1980s, those gaps were everywhere. If you managed to convince a few of those local actors to take their tops off, chances are rental stores would want your stupid shitty movie. Moreover, if your movie just so happened to fit a popular trend, people would actually spend their hard earned money to rent it. 

If you were born in the 1990s, this might be a bit difficult to believe, but yes, there was a time when supply didn't quite meet demand when it came to video rental choices. Nowadays, you have access to hundreds of thousands of films just by going online. But if you lived in a small town or were just a particularly obsessed video renter in the mid 1980s, chances are you found yourself far less than spoiled for choice.

A little further up the chain of quality were direct-to-video releases. I don't know what the real statistics are, but I would bet my left nut that the majority of titles sitting on the horror shelves of video rental stores back in the 1980s never saw a theatrical release in the States. They were usually cheap films, probably made for half a million, but unlike shot-on-video atrocities, these films were actually films, shot on celluloid and edited using a flatbed instead of a few VCRs daisy chained together. For every five films that featured no one you've ever heard of, there would be one or two that starred a recognizable scream queen or a washed up actor, usually Cameron Mitchell. They felt like real movies, looked like real movies, but… Well, there's a reason these films were made for quick rental store turnaround and not the multiplex.

If you're looking for the best example of the worst kinds of direct-to-video horror movies, FATAL PULSE is a damn good place to start. I rented this movie back when I was a kid. It looked stupid. It sounded stupid, but like I said, sooner or later, you just found yourself without a whole lot of options back then. The films I wanted to see were all rented out. The films that weren't were the films I had already seen. What the hell was I supposed to do? Not rent a horror movie? Rent a movie from some other genre? What are ya, fucking nuts?

FATAL PULSE is a direct-to-video slasher movie. The end.

I don't really need to say anymore, do I?

The film takes place on a college campus. Or so we're told. We never once actually see a college campus, just some nondescript streets and a three story house that we're meant to believe is a busy sorority home. Jeff has just recently decided to get back together with his girlfriend, Lisa, a decision that necessitates Jeff blowing off some hot blonde with more tits than brains. Shortly after Jeff ends their brief fling, the hot blonde is attacked in her home, strangled to death by a black gloved killer. After a few more sorority girls end up dead, the police really start ramping up their investigation, eventually targeting Jeff as their main suspect, all because Brad, Jeff's ex-friend and Lisa's ex-lover, saw Jeff leaving hot blonde's house the night she was murdered.

Remember those gaps in the market? I bet you can see them right now, can't you? The sorority house girls under attack from an unknown killer. Perfect for slasher fans. The brutal violence meted out by a black gloved killer evokes memories of great Italian and European horror-thrillers. The Hitchcockian pull of a story about a wrongly accused man. On paper, the film is conceptually quite strong, easily marketable and sellable. On screen, however, the whole thing falls apart.

For starters, the slasher film bits don't work because the victims are not even a part of the damn story. They're side characters, only introduced a scene or two before they're murdered. Despite knowing every single victim, Lisa doesn't seem to really acknowledge their deaths, let alone the fact that she's clearly swimming in the “possible victim” pool. Much of the on-screen time between Lisa and Jeff is spent on their relationship issues, not the fact that someone is bumping off their friends with alarming speed. No real effort is made to uncover the killer's identity, let alone avoid the killer altogether.

The slasher and Euro-thriller angles might have fared better had this film been made in the very early 80s, but FATAL PULSE hit video store shelves in 1988. The film feels horribly dated (and not just because everyone has massive hair, and the soundtrack is non-stop synth rock and hair metal). All of the problems this film suffers from were solved six or seven years before it ever saw its first day of production. Slasher films quickly learned how to squeeze blood from a stone to make the absolute most of the reductive narratives their tiny budgets would allow. Look at FATAL PULSE with its love triangle and slasher running amok, and think about just how well MY BLOODY VALENTINE played those same cards. Think about how many fantastic gialli used Hitchcockian tricks to play their well crafted games of cat and mouse. FATAL PULSE feels like a film made in the earliest days of both the slasher film and the giallo. It feels like the kind of film we would have seen before folks like Carpenter and Argento came along.

And speaking of the Hitchcockian thriller angle, FATAL PULSE drops the ball here as well. Jeff is only targeted by the cops late in the film. The only piece of evidence that would suggest Jeff, a model student with no criminal past, is the killer would be the fact that he was the last person to see hot blonde alive. That's literally all the cops have on him, but in this films universe, that's enough to warrant them chasing Jeff through the streets like the angry mob chasing down Frankenstein's Monster. But what is the real reason the cops are after Jeff in the first place? Well, it's because Brad, the pudgy dickhead with the Robert Smith hairdo, wants Lisa back and is therefore willing to frame Jeff for the murders.

See, that's an interesting bit of narrative right there. Why not have Brad be the killer? Why not have Brad slicing and dicing girls (and even slashing one girl's neck open with a vinyl record) in some twisted play for Lisa's heart? That would make so much more sense and be way more satisfying than the explanation we actually get for the murders, something to do with a man using an experimental treatment to cure his terminal illness, a treatment which unfortunately gives rise to misogynistic, homicidal rage. But no, the film only plays this card so we can have a chase scene and a fist fight. The Hitchcockian angle is never given much room to grow. It's pretty much dead on arrival anyway.

And that's because there really isn't a pulse to be found in FATAL PULSE. At 90 minutes, it feels terminal, chock full of every tired cliché in the book. The only time the film manages to be entertaining is when it focuses on characters that feel like they've wandered in from some other slasher movie going on just down the street. Joe Estevez's crazy Vietnam vet and Herschel Savage's frothing police detective are both wonderfully sketched characters, all bug eyes and histrionics. They're great, just total joys to watch. Shame then that everyone else, all the characters that actually matter, are such personality vacuums. Maybe if the characters seemed at all interested or worried or scared or even just annoyed at the horror going on around them, the film would have been mildly amusing. It simply isn't, primarily because the film can't do a single damn thing right. It emphasizes the unimportant, lavishing attention on personal, petty drama rather than the emergent drama of its slasher narrative. It's a paint by numbers affair, the kind of film done a thousand times before. Problem is, FATAL PULSE lacks even the most basic discipline. It can't even seem to match the right damn paint to the right damn number.

May 11, 2017


Vernon Zimmerman's 1980 slasher-thriller FADE TO BLACK is a film I probably would not have enjoyed as much had I seen it as a teenager. On its surface, it's a slasher film like every other slasher film. We have a lead, a loner named Eric Binford, who develops a serious crush on a wannabe actress who bears a striking resemblance to Marilyn Monroe. After he is stood up on their first date, Eric's already tenuous grasp on reality slips, leading him to commit a series of murders.

That's the gist of the film. That right there comprises the majority of the films narrative, with the addition of a hippie psychologist and his cop girlfriend tossed in to help bring the film to its bloody conclusion. But FADE TO BLACK, like SCREAM, VIDEO VIOLENCE and PEEPING TOM, embraces the old canard that birthed, among other things, the Video Nasty scandal. Beneath the ordinary surface of slasher film cliches and tropes lies the old argument. The pathology of cinema, the idea that perhaps exposure to violent media can lead to violent behavior.

Eric's first violent encounter has him pushing his wheelchair-bound mother down a flight of stairs as scenes from KISS OF DEATH, Henry Hathaways's unnerving 1947 film noir, are inter-cut with his actions. He then changes his name (and his behavior) to Cody Jarrett, the murderous, morally corrupt lead from Raoul Walsh's WHITE HEAT, before assuming the identity of several film characters for a batch of killings that sees him punishing everyone who abuses him.

But truth be told, the argument at the core of FADE TO BLACK isn't so much one of “do violent movies cause violent behavior?” as it is “does escapism come with a cost?”. Eric doesn't really have much of a life. He lives with his mother, does a poor job working at a film distributor, and spends most of his time chain smoking, a behavior we assume comes from watching classic films where the handsome lead always had a cigarette dangling from his lips. Instead of people skills, Eric has a vast knowledge of movies. When he first meets the Marilyn lookalike in a diner (it doesn't help that her name actually is Marilyn), he attempts to woo her with his knowledge of Monroe films. There is no real normal small talk. When he attempts to win her over with movie trivia, he even addresses her as if she were Marilyn Monroe, asking her what movie Tom Ewell took her to see in THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH.

We quickly begin to learn that for Eric, reality is largely an inconvenience. It's just something he has to deal with from time to time. Eric feels more comfortable with movies than he does with the reality around him. When confronted by the sometimes harsh realities of ordinary day-to-day life, Eric prefers the realm of escapism because it provides him solace and answers. Eric might not know how to deal with being bullied, but Hopalong Cassidy certainly would. After being rejected by a prostitute, Eric takes on the persona of Dracula, because, after all, women don't say no to the Count. The finale finds Eric completely enveloped in the personality of Jame Cagney's Cody Jarrett. And why wouldn't he be? Jarrett, like Eric, was a man who felt he deserved more than he was worth, but unlike Eric, Jarrett didn't take no for an answer and wasn't above putting those he felt were beneath him in their rightful place.

FADE TO BLACK might not be the most successful at pulling off this kind of self-reflective ambition, but the film bristles with psychological intrigue. Buoyed by a fantastic lead performance by Dennis Christopher, Zimmerman's film teeters between gleeful self-parody and fierce self-analysis. It's free of any overburdening pretentiousness, largely because, as much as it is a straight-up meta-horror film, it is also structured and presented as your standard slasher film. It has a serious question at its core, one that deserves less dismissal among film fans, but it is presented in a way that allows you to ignore it. You don't need to engage with the film on any kind of intellectual level to enjoy it. As a pure slasher film, it works just as well.

But bear in mind that the film was meant for people in their 30s and above. It is drowning in references to the cinema of the 1940s and 1950s. When I was teenager, I highly doubt I would have gotten much out of the references and homages (outside of the clever PSYCHO homage, that is). Part of the fun is watching some of these references get turned on their head, like watching a good guy like Hopalong Cassidy gun down a bully in the middle of a dirty alleyway. The film does assume its audience has some knowledge of classic cinema. I'm sure you can ignore much of it and still enjoy the film, but if you, like Eric Binford, have spent your days absorbing the classics and the not-so-classics of the Golden Age of cinema, FADE TO BLACK will truly blossom before your eyes into something expertly clever and ghoulishly surprising.

May 4, 2017


TOURIST TRAP begins with a man dodging telekinetically thrown bottles and doo-dads while a roomful of mannequins chuckle and scream at him. And then the film gets weird. Really weird. David Schmoeller's directorial debut is a jumble of horror movie influences, most notably CARRIE and HOUSE OF WAX. It's a kitchen sink kind of film, with all its bit and pieces tossed haphazardly together. The fact that the film doesn't collapse within the first ten minutes is a minor miracle.

The unfortunate fella we met at the start of the film is Woody. He had gone off to look for a gas station to help fix a busted tire, leaving behind his friends and girlfriend. When Woody never returns, the gang decides to make the best of it, with the girls heading off to skinny dip in a small watering hole. It's there that they meet Mr. Slausen, a kindly chap with a limp and a strange sense of humor. Slausen takes a liking to the pretty, virginal Molly. He also warns them about hanging around once night comes. After all, they have a coyote problem 'round these parts.

When the girls return to the car, their friend Jerry explains that a flat tire isn't all they have to worry about. Whatever car troubles they were having before have escalated to catastrophe. Now, the car is just flat out dead. Thankfully, Slausen makes an appearance, offering to help the group out. But in the meantime, they can hang around Slausen's roadside wax museum. As long as they don't go wandering around outside, that is. Especially off limits is the house behind the museum. That's where Slausen's brother Davey lives and Davey… Well, he doesn't like to be bothered.

While I will freely admit that the constant mixing of disparate horror movies into one piece of filmmaking had be chuckling more than groaning, you always run the risk of lifted elements spoiling potential surprises. Here, the dead giveaway is that the film lifts its setting right from PSYCHO, with the Bates Motel replaced by the roadside wax museum. Looming behind the commercial enterprise (which, like PSYCHO, was driven to ruin by the arrival of brand new highway) lies The House. You know, the place where the killer lives. Anyone familiar with Hitchcock's classic can see where the film is going with all of this. Slausen is a maniac with a split personality. Davey was his brother and, again like PSYCHO, was killed by Slausen after discovering Davey's sexual proclivities.

The persona of Davey is clearly lifted from THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, with the hulking killer wearing plaster casts of his victim's faces. The finale replaces a screaming Sally, driven mad by the Sawyer family, with a screaming Molly, driven mad by a bizarre mix of Carrie White and Norman Bates. All the various lifted bits and pieces come crashing down in a glorious cacophony of self aware lunacy, all shrieking mannequins and human cries of psychological anguish. It's a treat to watch, even if you know where it will all end up and what avenues it will take to get there.

The only real complaint I have about the film is that it's constructed in such a way that the second act feels very slow. We have a lot of learnin' to do about Slausen, his dead wife, his hopes and dreams, and why he has hung around these parts well after his life has all but crumbled away. We have to sit around and wait for a character or two to grow bored enough to go take a walk in the dark for any real horror movie stuff to start happening. All we really want to do is make our way back to the house behind the museum, the place where we know all the bad shit happens. The film teases that out to a length I found inappropriate. By the 40 minute mark, I was getting bored. Thankfully, once we finally get a chance to meet Davey in all his creepy glory, the film barely stops to catch its breath, doling out the shocks and set pieces at a fantastic clip. It becomes tremendous fun.

And I cannot stress that enough. TOURIST TRAP is a fun, creepy horror movie, one that deserves a far wider fan base than it currently has. It has just the right flavor of insanity, just the right amount of nightmare fuel, just the right touch of morbid humor. It is not an overly bloody, cynical, nudity-filled exploitation flick. It's a cartoon, overblown and ridiculous, pumped full of imagination and mescaline, the perfect horror movie to watch on a Saturday afternoon for a few laughs and thrills.