Tuesday 31 August 2021

IN SEARCH OF DARKNESS (2019 - Documentary)

 If I was an attorney defending 1980's horror movies on a charge of willful genre damage, I'm not sure I could save my client from the chair. Yes, it produced some fine and original films that I love as much as any fan, and some that are gloriously silly fun to prevent us getting too earnest about terms like 'importance' and 'meaning'. Nevertheless, the '80s was also the era where horror suffered from two damaging forces particular to the time. Firstly, there was the relentless sequelitis, whereby any character or format that could be repeatedly milked to exhaustion was so treated, with little regard for anything except cynical box office exploitation. The uniqueness of Jason, Freddy and Michael Myers for example became victims of gradual reductionist exercises in diminishing returns in which their back story was either ignored after being set up, explained unnecessarily when their enigma was part of their appeal, or their appearances just became a platform for staged 'kills' instead of depth. 

Linked to that was the tail wagging the dog of  horror films that seemed almost solely driven by the practical FX pyrotechnics that were supposed to be in service to the plot and ideas. Admittedly I have a great fondness for the period's advances in the tangible reality of prosthetic creatures and make-up whose threat level unnerves the mind more than when you know what you are seeing was added 'in post'  - but too often it felt like the Visual Effects Supervisor was a stronger guiding hand than the writer or director. 

Your honour, the defence suggests that the emphasis on the look of '80s films can't be blamed entirely on the creators or studios themselves (not even the non-coincidence that the French term 'cinema du look' was coined in the 80s to describe the high-gloss work of then-emerging filmmakers like Luc Besson). As an influence on America, the Reagan administration and Reaganomics' support of the rich between 1981-88 ushered in a period where conspicuous consumption and the visual demonstration of excess was not only accepted but encouraged. Gordon Gekko's "Greed is good" speech written by Oliver Stone for WALL STREET was so seductive that it became a call-to-arms for yuppies not a warning as intended. With that in mind then, what is a great horror movie FX sequence if not a demonstration of "Look what we can do, and this time it's bigger, better....more!"? Qualities like taste and restraint were sometimes as out of place as an old lady at a Dead Kennedys concert.

Horror fans of my generation are also prone to a rose-tinted view of the 80s because its is inextricably bound up with our coming of age at that time. Can we honestly say that it's the period's films that are being celebrated by us or our own sweet nostalgia for being young? I'll lay even money that every generation feels this way about the decade when they were teens.

Having said all that, let's get to the point of this article: IN SEARCH OF DARKNESS does a lot to remind even the jaded fan that there was a lot to offer in 80s horror despite my overarching whingeing. Across its four hours plus running time you have the pleasure of an exhaustive trip through the well-known and more obscure releases from every year between 1980 and 1989. This is no lazy clip or trailer show though: Writer/director David A. Weiner features some interesting and illuminating interview clips with many of the era's directors such as John Carpenter. Brian Yuzna, Stuart Gordon and Joe Dante, as well as much-loved actors who became genre stars in the 80s like the amiable Tom Atkins and Jeffrey Combs. A bonus for Slipknot fans is the enthusiastic musings here of lead singer Corey Taylor, reminding us that this was also the period when heavy metal music first became intertwined with the medium. It's a great concentrated injection of fun and serious contemplation along the way. Let's agree not to show the jury the big hair photos though, eh? No further questions.

Thursday 26 August 2021

CANDYMAN (1992 - Collector's Edition DVD)

 In advance of seeing Nia deCosta's remake tomorrow, I thought I'd re-visit Bernard Rose's 1992 original - and a mixed blessing it is through a more modern lens (dare you say 'enlightened' five times?).

The theme of urban myths is still richly fertile ground for a horror movie, and it's certainly a worthy stab at a Clive Barker approved take on his short story 'The Forbidden'. Rose's script transplants it from Barker's childhood territory of troubled, impoverished Liverpool to the violent real life ghetto of the Cabrini Green inner city project in Chicago. Philip Glass's angelic choir score still elevates the movie with that hauntingly evocative earworm of a title track 'It Was Always You, Helen' (my ring-tone for a while now) that serves double duty in seeding Rose's intention that this is more a love story than a revenge tale.

The performances bring what they can yet within what I now can't avoid feeling are uncomfortable attitude prejudices of the time that are valid to consider since race is at the heart of CANDYMAN's raison d'etre. Yes, Virginia Madsen's cool enigmatic researcher Helen Lyle is beautiful and capable instead of a helpless scream queen, which is somewhat enlightened. Kasi Lemmons makes the best of her close gal pal Bernadette Walsh. Tony Todd, the strongest suit in the deck, gives Candyman a grace and nobility without camping up any of his lines, a refreshing change to the period's tendency to descend into trailer line flambouyancy (I'm thinking of your sequels' descent, Mr Krueger). In fairness let me add bonus points for the sound design reverb on Todd's dialogue that makes it unnervingly feel like it's occurring in your head. 

Nevertheless, there's no escaping that Madsen's Hitchcock-esque heroine is there as a white saviour who single-handedly rescues both a baby and the black marginalised community. Lemmons' character is not only bumped off well before the end, but she is also the very lightest-skinned black actress one could imagine. Putting those elements together makes CANDYMAN feel less like the progression that the studio trumpeted and more like in effect a reinforcement of the status quo. 

*FUN FACT: According to the making-of documentary, and backed up by the actors, Rose mastered hypnotism and for most of the shoot placed Madsen under hypnosis before the majority of her scenes, hence her often unblinking passivity 

I generally avoid most remakes (especially western reworkings of J-horror originals). The hook, pardon my pun, with a 2021 version of CANDYMAN is what may be attempted in an era of new confidence and opportunity by black artists instead of simply about them. Let's see, shall we...?

Monday 23 August 2021

SNUFF (1976)

"The film that could only be made in South America... where Life is CHEAP!" shrieks the poster tagline. Not as cheap as the bid for credibilty in this notorious video nasty which only pinged on the British censors' radar when it was cynically marketed as an actual snuff movie. The atrocious dubbing, editing and performances in this grimy, bad porn-style offering are so bad as to defy anyone to believe anything on screen. Michael and Roberta Findlay directed the original footage (titled SLAUGHTER) back in 1971 but the distributor Alan Shackleton shelved it and tacked on a new ending four years later directed by Simon Nuchtern to capitalise on the vogueish urban myths about South American snuff movies - those rumoured to feature real on-screen murder. We'll get to that, but the first ninety percent of the movie is so incoherent and laughably inept that it takes a true horror film buff to wait that long.

The establishing scene of hippie chicks on a motorcycle underscored by a rock riff riding  cheekily close to Steppenwolf''s 'Born to be Wild' tells us the creators were fans of Dennis Hopper's EASY RIDER. The obvious influence of that counter-culture masterpiece is further felt by the later juxtaposing of Chile carnival footage with crude intercuts of two principals spectating unconvincingly as if taking part. In Hopper's movie he grabbed guerilla-style footage of the main cast genuinely immersed in the excitement of New Orleans Mardi Gras. His raw approach is part of EASY RIDER's gripping capturing of the zeitgeist. SNUFF's reality is that of hackwork.

The basic plot is an unsubtly welded cut-and-shut job of two disparate stories that eventually collide like kiddies' go-karts. One the one hand there are the two-timing machinations of glamorous actress Terry London (Argentinian beauty contest winner Mirta Massa) behind the back of her sleazebag producer Max (Aldo Mayo) "All he's interested in is big bosoms" spits her rich playboy lover Horst 

Meanwhile we also follow a bargain-basement Manson cult with a female harem led by Enrique Larratelli's Satán (emphasis on the second syllable please). "I will change men's destiny," he declaims. The portentousness of his statements is constantly undermined by many of his lines sounding like they were post-dubbed in an echoey public toilet. 

After Max's murder by the cult at the aforementioned carnival,Terry is interviewed by a local cop whose office is literally a desk placed in the doorway of a warehouse - production values and setting amusingly reminiscent of PLAN 9.

The rest is tawdry nonsense until we get to the infamous footage that caused all the censorship problems. In an epilogue filmed with noticeably better technical quality, a film crew has just finished a scene that both director and actress feel went well. He then suggests a little filmed celebratory nookie on the bed. Inexplicably the actress is happy to comply (!) until gradually things takes a sinister turn; he proceeds to snip off fingers and disembowel her in unflinching detail. As he brandishes her entrails in the air like a demented high priest, the picture cuts, leaving the hurried audio of the cameraperson blurting  "We got it all. Let's get out of here..." in an effort to simulate the risk of recording genuine horrific transgressiveness on camera. 

Come on now. The sequence is patently fake in its execution and could only fool hysterical reactionaries who are ignorant of movie effects and gullible enough to swallow admat materials on face value. Step forward former MP Sir Graham Bright: his first Private Members Bill in 1983 led to the wave of insane seizures of VHS tapes (as damagingly all-encompassing as the capturing of dolphins in tuna fishermens' nets) along the way to the Video Recordings Act of 1984. Interviews I've seen with him appear to confirm that he really believed that the murders in films like SNUFF actually took place. Thank goodness he never served on the BBFC board as a reviewer. 

As the film's earlier history showed, he wasn't the only fish reeled in. On its U.S. theatrical release in 1976, Shackleton pulled off a marketing trick worthy of lovable 1950s huckster producer William Castle by employing people to picket cinemas in a fake protest at the film's cinema vérité inclusion of real homicide. Their private delight at reports of feminists making real protests as a result were tempered though by SNUFF's eventual exposure as a hoax.

Sunday 22 August 2021

HORROR NOIRE (Shudder Channel Documentary - 2019)

 HORROR NOIRE (Shudder Channel Documentary - 2019)

An excellent and long overdue examination of the black experience and talent representation in horror films, led by Robin R. Means Coleman, PhD and based on her same-titled book (on my Wish List) as well as notable black actors, directors and academics.
Whilst it's not expected to be exhaustive in its 83 minute running time, it's well paced and covers all the most important historical touch points such as the woefully racist depictions as far back as Griffiths' BIRTH OF A NATION, the appallingly demeaning 1930s use of actors like Manton Moreland (covered in detail in all his roles across my blog), the ground-breaking casting of Dwayne Jones by George Romero in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (purely based on his talent and not a forced affirmative action policy) through the problematic, I would argue schizophrenic, Blaxploitation era experiment, right up to the zeitgeist-nailing brilliance of Jordan Peele's GET OUT.
Someone on Amazon criticised this documentary for not featuring white interviewees. Perhaps that says more about the reason why this needed to be made. They certainly have hundreds elsewhere to choose from if such an absense offends them...?
Highly recommended.

Saturday 21 August 2021



Ruggero Deodato's opening move in the dubious game of Cannibal movie chess he played with Umberto Lenzi (see THE MAN FROM DEEP RIVER) was this poor and offensive effort. The director maintained that since Lenzi's celluloid sacrificial offering limited its anthropological investigation to a tribal initiation of the white interloper (Ivan Rassimov) inspired from the first nation Indian tribe in A MAN CALLED HORSE rather than cannibal culture, Deodato's film claims to be more truthfully a cannibal movie in its research. It's a shame he didn't study modern western audiences' culture as this movie proposes that Massimo Foschi's explorer character raping wordless native (poor Me Me Lai), is somehow sufficient to willingly bond her to him. This has to rank alongside the appallingly misguided rape-turned-acquiescence of Susan George in Peckinpah's otherwise masterful STRAW DOGS in terms of offensive titillation passed off as justified character motivation.
The film treads what would become the standard text of cannibal movies as white explorers Foschi and Ivan Rassimov trespass unsubtly on cannibal tribe territory then bitterly regret it. 
There are two remarkable scenes however. The first is the epic scale of an enormous real cave structure in which the natives torture a high-suspended Foschi. The physical beauty of this location scene is undermined though by the tribe repeatedly twanging the captured Foschi's penis like George Formby warming up a ukelele. The other is his character's later survival gambit, after Lai is killed by the tribe, of biting into her heart in front of them to pretend he now shares their ways. It's thrillingly transgressive in a way but not worthwhile enough to recommend wading through this toxic swamp.

Umberto Lenzi's return of sub-genre serve was an equally dubious venture of rape, animal torture and foreign tribal exploitation only noteworthy for Ivan Rassimov's commanding cult leader in a plot development drawn from the then-topical tragic Jonestown suicide pact.
Me Me Lai, in the last of her three cannibal assault courses on film, again submits in more ways than one as a widowed native who here endures several bouts of forced 'attention' from fellow tribal males in a traditional ritual designed to rid her of her deceased husband's hold over her. (In an interview, Lenzi chooses to accept this as authentic anthropological detail, but that doesn't mean the viewer has to). Equally dodgy was the German studio executives' specific request that Lenzi include a scene where another woman (here Paola Senatore) is...well, you can guess the degraded picture. This says a lot about how exploitation movies were constructed back then, and what rocks were peered under to source such tasteless feedback.
Strictly for completists without any of the harmless voyeuristic fun some Italian horror films of this period offer.

THE MAN FROM DEEP RIVER (1972 - 88 Films DVD release)


Umberto Lenzi can lay claim to being the originator of the short-lived Cannibal horror sub-genre, though in the good-natured dispute with his friend and rival Ruggero Deodato as to who got there first, it may only be as noteworthy as the two politicians' feud described as 'two bald men fighting over a comb'. Horror fans who picked up THE MAN FROM DEEP RIVER may be as surprised as I was that it was released as far back as 1972. Even more surprising is that it's much less exploitative (barring the very fast-forwardable animal abuse) in its plot and handling of character. Rather than the later movies' endless reworking of 'crude white explorers justifiably fall foul of a savage tribe' which is almost Victorian in its racist fear/exploitation of foreigners, the excellent Ivan Rassimov (more of him anon) plays a scallywag who hides out with an Amazonian tribe and eventually assimilates, to his and their cost. He develops a sympathy for them and a marriage with the lovely Burmese/British actress Me Me Lai with enough depth and sensitivity to belie the video nasty ghettoisation these films usually deserve.
This is is the only one of the three cannibal movies Lai did where she is allowed any character work, being subject to the same law of diminishing returns on screen as this sub-genre earned. The 88 Films DVD has a great extended interview with Lai by the intrepid Calum Waddell.
(FUN FACT: In retraining later as a police officer in Essex, in the '80s Lai had the ironic experience of making video shop raids during the Nasties witch-hunts where she had to confiscate copies of her own films, unbeknownst to her colleagues).

EATEN ALIVE (1977 - Arrow bluray)

 EATEN ALIVE (1977 - Arrow bluray)

Tobe Hooper's next project after THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE is a strange, stage-bound slice of misguided misogyny. The bluray is a gorgeous transfer but despite an artificial alligator, it's a real crock.
Thankfully, SALEM'S LOT soon came up.

NIGHTMARE CITY (1980 - Arrow bluray)

 NIGHTMARE CITY (1980- Arrow bluray).

Not content with animal (and audience) cruelty with his cannibal movies, Umberto Lenzi gave us this hugely enjoyable video nasty in which a planeload of porridge-faced radioactive passengers disembark at Madrid airport and slaughter anyone nearby with machetes and axes whilst exposing as many victims' boobs as the director can get away with. Loosely based on a Charlotte Bronte novella (so loosely that I'm lying), its absurdity is great fun. Plus you get Mel Ferrer giving every ounce of gravitas this movie doesn't deserve. As Lenzi himself emphatically states in the interview: "They are NOT zombies. They are vampires". Err...okay.

Thursday 19 March 2020



In 1973 director William Friedkin shocked the world with THE EXORCIST. Four years later, John Boorman had the same effect but for all the wrong reasons.
EXORCIST II is even worse on a re-view than back in the 80s. The script is sparse and ultra-dumb, and is a total waste of the talents of Louise Fletcher, Ennio Morricone and Richard Burton, who to his credit gives his clunky-as-a-bag-of-spanners dialogue every ounce of the gravitas of which it's not worthy. Linda Blair also must have wondered if 'better the devil you know' was a viable teenage career move.
The editing is suspiciously abrupt at times, giving credibility to the story that Boorman tried at least three attempts to re-edit the ending after one of the worst premieres in movie history. (According to Friedkin, this showing was received with such legendary bad grace that an audience member got up at the end and shouted to the crowd: "The people who made this piece of shit are IN THIS ROOM!!"

Wednesday 4 March 2020



Here's my first episode of studio audio talks woven together from my horror writings. 
Beginning with the horror-tinged shorts of Laurel and Hardy (34 mins)



Shinya Tsukamoto's gloriously bananas vision of urban metal fetishism across two films is an acquired taste to be sure. TETSUO: THE IRON MAN is less a linear plotted movie, and more a 67 minute monochrome bio-mechanoid performance art piece influenced by Cronenbergian body horror. The imagery is fast, absurdist and coupled with a cool industrial techno soundtrack reminiscent of early New Order. Apparently filmed over 18 months in his house, the conditions were so tough Tsukamoto's entire crew left before the shoot ended!

The sequel makes somewhat more concessions to the mainstream with colour and plotting but is equally and compellingly insane. Each movie manages to end in a deranged yet strangely upbeat way by taking their premise into epic madness.  

Friday 3 January 2020


Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (1990) - "They saved the best till last!".
No it wasn't and no they didn't.
In the DVD interviews even newly-promoted director Rachel Talalay and franchise producer Robert Shaye struggled vainly to say good things about this ill-conceived turkey. On the upside, we get all-too-brief cameos from Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold, plus Alice Cooper as Freddy's abusive step-dad. However, we also have to step in roughly eighty minutes of quality quicksand around them.
The attempt to satirise Freddy's influence on pop culture means we get Breckin Meyer absorbed into an 8-bit video game and then spat out into imitating gaming moves in the real world. Watching him pogo-ing up the stairs and striding about like a bad Streetfighter graphic is utterly cringeworthy. Krueger, the shadowy nemesis of the first film, has now become a fully-lit (and overexposed in screen time) pantomime baddie with sub-Butlin's one-liners.
And for bad measure, who's idea was it to saddle the production with a climactic ten minutes of clunky 3D footage? Audiences had to guess at when to put the glasses on based on when the final girl did, which then treated them to clumsily thrust items and flying heads that are an unsubtle 'homage' to Evil Dead 2. Only Wes Craven would dare clamp crocodile clips to this series to re-activate it - and fortunately he did...

A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 1 - 5 (1984 - 1989)

No time nowadays to do in-depth writing on these but still documenting what I've been re-watching. The
first doesn't hold up that well except for Craven's highly original premise. The second is a rushed cash-in that at least is amusing for its unusual homoerotic edge. The third is the best and the most professional, the fourth has imagination and got Renny Harlin the gig directing DIE HARD 2, whilst the fifth does at least have some bite to its set pieces like the Geiger-inspired human/motorbike interface...

Tuesday 24 December 2019


At one point in The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 (1984), blind girl in peril Cass (Tamara Stafford) cries out "Why?" Why indeed did Craven go back to this well seven years after the previous film and poison it with this utter dreck of a sequel? It fails on almost every level as a very obvious belated cash-in. The answer is he needed the money. Craven hadn't worked for almost three years since Swamp Thing: developing scripts like the long-gestating A Nightmare on Elm Street didn't pay well on their own. His producer from The Hills Have Eyes Peter Locke convinced him there was mileage in revisiting that premise. However, the brief twenty-four day shoot on a million dollar budget, though three times the first one's cost, would still scupper any bid for quality. There was also, according to the director, a disastrous and possibly underhand post-production decision made...

Ruby, a remarkably rehabilitated survivor from Part 1's murderous cannibal family, drives to the desert with a tiresome group of kill fodder twenty-somethings as a moto-cross team who have high hopes for race victory with their own super fuel. They fall foul of Pluto (a returning Michael Berryman) plus the Reaper (John Bloom), the seven feet four-inch towering older brother of the original film's Papa Jupiter, and manage to dispatch both before the end credits, by which time you've long since stopped caring.
Along the way, there is sadly zero fun to be had enduring the awful decisions made by Craven as both director and writer. He lets in the clunkiest of exposition, such as when Ruby asks Cass "You're not feeling psychic today are you, like you sometimes do?"
The most laughable and annoying device is the repeated use of flashbacks, presumably to pad out the screen time to ninety minutes. Robert Houston, the least convincing of the original cast, kicks this off  in the opening scene as a patient unpacking his past trauma to a therapist. Mercifully we only see him this once, though the flashbacks recur through the film. In fact Craven is so desperate to get the most out of this that we even see one relived by Beast, the kick-ass German Shepherd, remembering his attack on the homicidal family in the earlier film!
Any goodwill banked by the first movie is quickly used up: the earlier frissons of docu-realism are replaced by disbelief at the poor man's Mad Max posturings of Bloom, not to mention a definite papier-mache boulder falling on one of the luckless youngsters.
The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 is such a dreadful sequel that if you didn't know Craven was behind it, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was the typical case of a studio merely buying the rights and bringing in a quickie hack director to trade on the property's name without its creator's involvement. To be fair to Craven, in a later interview with Kim Newman he protested that this version was never meant to be shown. The producers had an answer print struck, (a standard procedure allowing the team to see what was lacking and decide how to apportion Craven an extra five to six days additional shooting) but afterwards "Suddenly they were acting as if that was the finished film". The studio released this rough cut it as it was, barring Craven from correcting what he knew was a poor ending, two main sequences needing revision "and the whole opening needed to be shortened drastically".
The sequel languished on the shelf for so long that only the stellar success of A Nightmare on Elm Street at the end of 1984 caused it be released as a cynical piece of opportunism in the summer of 1985.
Following his frustration, Craven kept the bills paid with Invitation To Hell, a TV movie starring Robert Urich, a crazy, slightly Faustian tale of an engineer who builds a heat resistant space suit and is forced to wear it to rescue his family from a nightclub that is a front for the entrance to Hell itself.
Thankfully, by the end of 1984, Craven would finally extricate himself from sub-standard  disttractions to re-launch his reputation as a quality craftsman of horror by introducing audiences to a gentleman named Freddy Kreuger...


Wes Craven continued his gradual rise through major studio associations with Swamp Thing in 1982. By now, he should have been enjoying the greater resources that such an alliance could offer, yet the relative generosity of a $3m budget was still much less than this project needed, and he was continually penny-pinched and second-guessed by his producers to the film's detriment - yet it does have an offbeat appeal.
The DC comic book of Swamp Thing was the brainchild of writer Len Wein and the artist Bernie Wrightson, and was conceived at a time when the vogue was for darker, horror influenced comics - other popular titles of that era were Morbius the Living Vampire and Tomb of Dracula for example.
Craven's film based on his script was as faithful as he could be to the comic book tone, creating a tragic hero in Dr Alec Holland, a research scientist whose bio-engineered formula is targeted for possible weaponisation by evil paramilitary leader Anton Arcane. Holland's southern swamp base is attacked, causing him to be doused by his own formula and transformed essentially into the Hulk in appearance but retaining both conscience and Holland's intelligence. He hides out in the swamp, only surfacing to protect government worker Alice Cable whom he had fallen in love with; (one of the changes by Craven as the original Cable was male).
The tone of the movie iteration pays homage to comic book style by using bright primary colours and iris wipes of different shapes to separate scenes - a technique that may also have been inspired by Spielberg and Lucas's roaring success  with 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark. It also has the oddball campy feel of The Toxic Avenger reinforced by the green creature suit and Holland's soulful gravity inside it. Dick Durock inhabits the Swamp Thing in monster form, after being played with sincerity and a twinkle of ladies' man charm by Ray Wise in the first act - best known as the oily Leland Palmer in TV's Twin Peaks and equally memorably in Tim Robbins' Republican satire Bob Roberts (1991).
Also commendably straight-faced is Louis Jordan as Arcane (a strikingly elegant Gallic Count Dracula burnt into my childhood memory from the 1997 BBC TV production). From Craven's past repertory company comes David Last House on the Left Hess, here morphing his hideous Krug from that film into one of the decidely PG-rated bumbling, paintball-style revolutionaries under Arcane.
As the love interest, horror fans and indeed anyone will welcome the curvy and talented Adrienne Barbeau, who as an ex-Broadway star (Rizzo in the original cast of Grease) became a horror icon from 1980's The Fog onwards. She is not just an interesting figure physically but stands out within the genre as one of the few female actors who could gamely show off her body without compromising her streetwise and feisty portrayals of modern women.
Unlike Barbeau, Swamp Thing does become a victim both to an unevenness of tone - one or two deaths are oddly graphic for the intended rating - and also a third act whose pace and ambition seriously plummets. Craven blamed this on the budget running out, which is a shame as the first two acts give us helicopter entrances and boat explosions to lift it above the usual exploitation fare, coupled with Harry Manfredini's  excellent score.
Sadly, in spite of grandiose talk of tie-in merchandising to rival Tim Burton's later Batman (1989) in scope (t-shirts that changed colour from the wearer's body heat for example), the film failed to catch fire. Amazon Prime recently re-energised the name's following with its 2019 series (and an episode guest role for Barbeau), but this of course was far too late to help Craven's career that was now forced to take a hideous retrograde step into his back catalogue to make ends meet...

Monday 23 December 2019


From Mark Hartley, editor and director of the Ozploitation documentary Not Quite Hollywood (2008) comes another highly entertaining dissection of the insane world of exploitation movies from somewhere other than Tinseltown. In this tongue-in-cheek romp, he explores the Filipino connection during the time in the sixties and seventies when the corrupt dictatorship of President Marcos and his wife not only allowed homegrown trash from the likes of Eddie Romero (creator of the awful Blood Island trilogy) but welcomed American productions in, providing they didn't include subversive propaganda against him. Ironically, blaxploitation director Jack Hill sought to fill his movies like The Big Doll House (1971) and the less amateurish parody The Big Bird Cage (1972) with a hefty amount of revolutionary plotting whilst there - not that anyone was going to treat his tits and guns Pam Grier/Sid Haig epics as manifestos for anything other than laughs. Also highlighted is the cavalier disregard for safety from Filipino directors whereby stunts were performed by totally unqualified performers almost regarded as disposable meat puppets.
Not all movies shot in their wild jungle world were lowbrow grindhouse fare though. Infamously, Coppola's anti-war masterpiece Apocalypse Now was shot in the Philippines using Marcos's army helicopters and troops after palms were copiously greased for the privilege. Covered here but detailed more extensively in Eleanor Coppola's superb Hearts of Darkness documentary, this loaning out of resources was still unreliable and caused havoc with the shooting schedule when the choppers were repeatedly flown away to fight guerilla forces in the mountains. No wonder Coppola came to realise that the making of Apocalypse Now became as much a location autobiography as an examination of the Vietnam war debacle.
Hartley gets plenty of great interview footage from the Filipino filmmakers still alive, as well as Hollywood stalwarts like Roger Corman and director Brian Trenchard Smith. Watch out for the sequence where creators and stars of some of the worst female exploitation titles attempt to retroactively claim them as pro-feminist emancipation statements, cross-cut with John Landis gleefully calling bullshit.
Highly recommended madcap fun!

Friday 20 December 2019


After the success of The Hills Have Eyes, Wes Craven truly began to gain ground as a mainstream Hollywood filmmaker. He  acquired union membership of the Director's Guild of America by directing a well received made for TV feature called A Stranger In Our House, televised on Halloween 1978, and starring Linda Blair who shot to fame as the possessed Regan in The Exorcist (1973). He then developed the screenplay of First Blood years before it was changed when Sylvester Stallone became attached to it, and Marimba, a Colombian drug-trafficking thriller starring Michael Berryman from The Hills have Eyes that later came out as Cut and Run in 1985 helmed by Ruggero Cannibal Holocaust Deodato.
The next property that he actually brought to fruition was an effective Southern Gothic chiller titled Deadly Blessing (1981) made through Polygram with major distribution by United Artists. He rose to the occasion, crafting a cross between Friday The 13th and Witness and despite his protestations in interviews it deals with themes of religious repression, mistrust and fear of the unknown that must surely have reared up from his childhood. It's the story of three female secular friends who fall foul of a stern local god-fearing Hittite community - "They make the Amish look like swingers" we are warned - ruled with a rod of birch in fine, Abe Lincoln-bearded style by Ernest Borgnine, while a mysterious serial killer begins targeting the cultists.
The catalyst is the death of Martha (Maren Jensen)'s former Hittite husband Jim (Howie Munson in TV's The Fall Guy). They had always borne the brunt of hostility from the cult after their relationship caused Jim to be excommunicated. Even worse, he bears the weight of his tractor crushing him to death in their barn. After the funeral, Martha's two best friends arrive to share her grief and ultimately her terror as they are repeatedly attacked by the unknown foe as well. Susan Buckner is the most convincing of the trio as the morally footloose but feisty Vicky. Sharon Stone is less memorable in her first speaking role as Lana, at times underplaying the typical horror movie blonde beauty in jeopardy to the point of virtual emptiness. There were a few years of languishing in low ranked movies for her before she started to command strongly in Verhoeven's Total Recall (1990).
Comparisons with Friday The 13th are not only evident, but probably deliberate since this came out a year after Craven's former producer Sean S. Cunningham's paradigm-shifting slasher provoked a wave of genre imitators. Deadly Blessing shares the former's stalk and slash set-ups and the revelation of ostensibly female rather than male murderers (two in fact), but to be fair the similarities should end there. The set-pieces here are handled with much more style and unnerving pay-offs, such as the snake released into Martha's bath (echoed later in Heather Langenkamp's sudsy bath-time doze encounter with Freddy Kreuger in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and the shiver-inducing tarantula dropped into Stone's mouth during a dream sequence - only filmed after Stone insisted on its fangs being removed. Craven's third feature is structured unusually: the outsiders (dubbed 'the incubus' with relish by Borgnine's Isiah Schmidt) survive repeated homicidal attacks for the first two acts, whilst it is the Hittite members who are hit. Michael Berryman's man-child William is dispatched like Jim, only this time stabbed to death by the enigmatic killer. It's not until Vicky goes on an illicit date with tempted formerly-betrothed John Schmidt (Jeff East) that she is blown up in her car after he is murdered. Could this be that pesky 'only the sinful die' retribution that was emerging in eighties slasher movies? Well, motivations are muddied further when ultimately the killer's identities are revealed as mother and 'daughter' Louisa and Faith (Lisa Hartman), the latter of whom is uncovered as a man - essentially the male incubus predator Isaiah feared all along. As a result, this unexpectedly vindicates his obsessive puritanism, a charitable moment to offset any claims that Craven was forever critical of fundamentalist religion.
Happily, the ending rescues such unravelling nuttiness with a superbly staged shock punch that also betters Cunningham's progenitor in how to finish a horror movie. After Martha assures Lana she will be fine on her own, she is terrified by the apparition of a zombified transparent Jim staggering toward her (sporting Dawn of the Dead style grey pancake face makeup), whispering "Beware the Incubus". She is given no time to heed this though as suddenly an immense black shape erupts through the floorboards and engulfs her, dragging her to a presumed Hell.
Deadly Blessing benefits as well from a lovely rich theme tune by acclaimed composer James Horner. Overall, it begins to bridge the gap between Craven's indie hillbilly slasher films and his path to two stunning commercial megabucks franchises. There were however to be two more lesser ranking projects before fame and fortune beckoned...

Wednesday 18 December 2019


From his origins Wes Craven (1939-2015) seemed the most unlikely of men to become one of the most famous directors and influencers in the horror film world - and yet the more you delve into his background, the more it makes sense. Craven  had been raised in a strict Baptist church setting in Cleveland, Ohio to lower-middle class parents who divorced when he was very young. The repression and denial of darker impulses as well as images of Satan as the purveyor of punishment for sin haunted him from a very early age. Later in life, in a 1990 interview with Michael Banka for Cineaste magazine, he expressed regret that he had earlier described the church's impact on his formative years, claiming that "...religion is a normal part of a lot of Americans' lives and I've never felt the need to deal specifically with it in my movies".  And yet his upbringing informed preoccupations and imagery in his work that deal very much with social anxieties and how delicate social fabric is, how easily the tension within groups can be tested to breaking point. The family under siege in The Hills Have Eyes (1977), the forbidding Hittite community in Deadly Blessing (1981) and even the vigilantes who gather to kill the paedophile Freddy Kreuger as the inciting incident in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) all attempt to maintain a veneer of civilisation while forces conspire to bring our their primitive uncontrolled urges to defend what they believe in.
An event that also had a profound effect on the eleven year-old Craven's psyche was when he awakened from a doze in his family's second-floor apartment to look down at the street where a strange man in a hat and overcoat looked up at him. The man appeared to make a move to enter their building, at which the terrified Craven woke his brother and they burst out of the apartment armed with a baseball bat to find he had vanished. Though dismissing him as a harmless drunken bum, the future creator of Freddy Krueger never forgot the potential that an adult could have to amuse himself terrorising vulnerable children.
Craven's first career as a university professor of Humanities suited his demeanour of the very quiet, academic gentleman - an air that he seems never to have lost according to the actors interviewed from The Hills Have Eyes. However, when his department chairman at Clarkson College insisted he should apply himself to a PhD or face being fired, he took the advice of his peers and decided that arduous road was not for him.
Working in film was what really appealed to Craven; he had gained a new zealot's love for the medium only in adulthood because until then his religion forbade all but the most innocent of cinema-going. Till he went to college the only movies he was permitted to see were made by Disney. Suddenly in his undergraduate days he was exposed to the intoxication of the French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) amongst other works in the heady counter-cultural period of the late 1960s. Hooking up as an editor with producer Sean S. Cunningham who needed help with profitable soft-core porn films, they realised that horror was a genre that could be equally lucrative. This led to Craven's directorial debut in 1972 with Last House on the Left (already covered in this blog). Although to my mind its exploitation of women, crudity of execution and dreadful performances disastrously mar its underlying themes, it is an important step in his development as an artist. Admirably, Craven was not afraid to graphically show violence without sanitising it, and he demonstrated from then on a willingness to deal with unsavoury real world issues even when buried as subtext under overt horror movie styling. This thoughtful, multi-layered approach could only have come from a creative soul who was familiar with the rigours of examining what is beneath the surface in the mind sciences and arts.
Producer Peter Locke urged Craven to consider making a second horror picture. The director was extremely reluctant due to the enormous disapproval his first film garnered wherever he went  - even at dinner parties. No-one could separate the man from the material. It was only financial desperation that forced him to accept the offer. Craven's debut was produced for a budget of around $90,000 which is a remarkable physical achievement. I'll concede. This sophomore project would eventually be completed at a cost of around $350,000 which was very close to that of John Carpenter's Halloween (1978). However, Carpenter's masterpiece was lensed nestled in the creature comforts of suburbia. Craven's crew was heading for the grim hardship of weeks in the unforgiving Mojave Desert. What better location he reasoned for a return to the theme of primitive nature eventually revealing primitive mankind when pushed to the forefront by extreme pressure?
The Hills Have Eyes shares a very similar plot to Last House on the Left  but is a much better film, made by more experienced talents in every department and a director who was growing in skill at putting a vision on screen that wasn't obscured by just pandering to the lowest level of prurient exploitation. Here, the action is centred around a white bread, close-knit middle class family whose motor home breaks down deep in the wind-whipped desert. They then find themselves stranded and preyed upon by what is essentially their flip-side: a gruesome feral family of homicidal modern-day cannibals so depraved that they prize the civilised family's new born baby as 'powerful food'. The inspiration for these gibbering gut-munchers came from the legend of Sawney Bean, the likely fictional tale of a sixteenth century Scottish clan of incestuous cannibals who for years lured their victims to their cave to be consumed until a huge manhunt led to their capture and equally appalling torture and executions. The irony of the accusers using the same violence in punishment as the criminals did in murder was not lost on Craven when constructing motivation within his screenplay
The cast of both camps give much stronger performances than the motley collection in Last House. The cannibal commune, named after planets, include Papa Jupiter, (a splendidly gravel-voiced, snarling James Whitworth); Mercury (a short-lived cameo for Locke); Lance Gordon's suitably warlike permed and buck-toothed Mars, (an amusing echo of Michael Bentine's mad professor persona from The Goon Show) and Ruby, the lesser evil token female (Janus Blythe, who already had genre credits in De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise in 1974 and featured also in 1977's The Incredible Melting Man. The most memorable is of course the unmistakable bald, striking figure of Michael Berryman as Pluto. In real life the bearer of twenty-six birth defects including a malformed skull, and a much-liked gentility of personality, Berryman went on to convert his unfortunate beginnings into a long, lucrative career in horror for which he was always grateful to Craven. Here he is unsettling whilst earning to a dose of sympathy as the bullied overgrown child of the flesh-eating bunch.
Meanwhile, the civilised family of parents and adult children are weakened by Robert Houston's whiny, not always convincing Bobby who bears a passing resemblance to a sunny Mark Hamill. He later appears in the sequel but found his true metier as a documentary director, most notably of the Oscar-winning short Mighty Times: The Children's March (2005). The strongest player in the deck is Dee Wallace, a horror cult fan favourite from later classics like Joe Dante's The Howling (1981) and Cujo (1983). Her high-voltage nerviness gives her scenes an edgy credibility. She was justifiably proud of the fulfilled promise of her early role in The Hills Have Eyes - according to IMDb, she has racked up 11 credits in 2019 alone.
Honourable mention should also go to John Steadman's grizzled gas station owner Fred, the father of Papa Jupiter. He channels a hard-bitten, energetic bitterness at having innocently spawned this constellation of psychopaths.
The actual shooting conditions often felt as brutal as the events on screen; indeed, Houston recalled that the cast's physical suffering during filming mirrored that of their characters. The desert temperature soared to one hundred and twenty degrees in the day and dropped to the thirties by night, so they were either boiling with dehydration or freezing. This probably added to some veracity on film, along with an effective documentary feel like that of the superior The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). In fact the set decorator Bob Burns worked on both films and relished bringing his van of 'kit' to augment the rocky landscape with those touches of human skin etc that garnish the home of any self-respecting anthropophagus and his brood.
The last act of the film works well as pretty much full-on action as the 'advanced' survivors gradually regress into admittedly quite ingenious primitives: once Susan Lanier's Brenda stops her grating, hysterical shrieking, she retools their car wheel as a spindle to turn a cable that drags Papa Jupiter toward his eventual demise. This follows Brenda and Bobby luring him using their dead mother as bait (Surely Craven could no longer be bemused by his unpopularity over the canapes now!)
The end is a little too abruptly with a red-filtered, isolated freeze-frame of Doug as he finishes relentlessly stabbing Mars to death. The Anchor Bay two-disc DVD edition contains an alternate ending whereby the murders of Jupiter and Mars are reversed, followed by the three survivors joining hands and walking away. Given the choice, I'd rather go with the sudden end.
The Hills Have Eyes opened in sixty cinemas in Los Angeles, half of which catered to drive-in audiences. The good news for Craven was that the resulting $250,000 in just its opening fortnight, coupled with $150,000 from its San Diego release put the movie into the black almost immediately. Though he might have felt some ambivalence about his defined place in the industry, Wes Craven's name, though controversial, was beginning to be a brand. It wouldn't be long before his singular point of view forged the first of two colossally successful franchises...

Monday 16 December 2019


Boobs, bikers, burnings and botched stuntwork!

Fans of exploitation movies in particular will love Mark Hartley's infectiously exuberant documentary about the period when Aussie cinema made its mark in ways that the critics disparaged and fans loved. From Barry Humphries' BARRY MCKENZIE movies that satirized his uncouth 'ocker' fellow countrymen, right up to the mid-1980s, the period dubbed Ozploitation covered every exploitable sub-genre from soft porn, through horror, biker movies and post-apocalyptic junkyard trash. They're all here from MAD MAX to RAZORBACK and all nutty points in between, gleefully told by the directors, actors, crew and superfan Quentin Tarantino. The hair-raising anecdotes centred around the alarmingly risky stuntwork and even fatal consequences of quick-profit shooting are worth the viewing alone. It also briefly contextualises how a lot of these movies gained funding due to Australia's hyper-attractive investment scheme known as 10BA  whereby producers could gain at one stage up to a 150% tax concession, thereby leading to a flood of gleefully dodgy movies.
The highest compliment I can pay NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD is that it's reminded me of a horde of films I need to revisit (like HARLEQUIN, PATRICK and THE SURVIVOR) and presented tantalising glimpses of new ones I need to see. Highly recommended...

Friday 13 December 2019

JASON X (2001)

JASON X is a wildly improbable but enjoyable concept by director Jim Isaac and writer Todd Farmer. After pitching the still involved Executive Producer Sean S. Cunningham his ideas placing Jason anywhere he could think of, the one that stuck was to project the homicidal hillbilly into outer space. Fortunately, New Line supported the idea enough to give Isaac a relatively huge £13m budget (over three times the scale of any previous sequel) which allowed him to employ VFX film Toybox to produce over two hundred visual effect shots using green screen and CGI. It also benefits from a surprisingly rich and quite lovely score by long-term FRIDAY THE 13TH company member Harry Manfredini.
The cast are of a high standard and play with spirit and a genre knowingness. Lisa Ryder relishes her role as kick-ass android Kay-Em 14 as just one of a number of elements inspired by James Cameron's 1986 sci-fi/horror hybrid ALIENS along with the gung-ho Marine grunts who are culled like the rest of the crew.
David Cronenberg appears at the beginning as Dr Wimmer, a favour asked by Isaac having worked for him as a special effects supervisor on EXISTENZ (1999). His is a nice genre cameo, inhabiting the horror movie archetype of cold fascination for the evil subject's potential overriding concerns for human safety that his own movies often featured in various clinics and facilities.
One slightly grating aspect is that whilst Rowan (Lexa Doig) is accidentally freeze-dried into cryogenic suspension in our time, she awakes on a space vessel in the year 2455 where female crew members are dressed in the skimpiest, sexualised outfits since 1960s shows like STAR TREK. As attractive as they are, you can't help thinking 'In space no-one can hear you objectifying women just like your ancestors'.
That aside, this sequel is sheer fun if you accept it on its own terms. Kane Hodder still imbues Jason with a towering dextrous force in his fourth outing, and Farmer's script saves a crowd-pleasing transformation for him till the last act where he is remodelled by the science lab's nano-technology into a steroidally-enhanced metal and leather clad uber-Jason before blown out of the airlock and vaporised with Peter Menhas's Sgt Brodksi.
Lastly, the humour of JASON X is worth mentioning. After taunting Jason's ineffectiveness for his first literal stab at him, the Sarge suffers a penetrating slicing through his chest and gasps "Yep, that oughta do it". My favourite one-liner though is the scientist who tells Rowan she's lucky that "you weren't alive during the Microsoft conflict. We were beating each other with own severed limbs".
No matter that JASON X only grossed four million more than its budget on release. Within two years, the long-awaited match between Jason and Freddy Kreuger would finally take place...

Thursday 12 December 2019


On paper JASON GOES TO HELL: THE FINAL FRIDAY promised to be a surefire misfire. With that preposterous title and a pedigree of eight extremely variable films behind it, this sequel might be expected to go down in flames. And yet, due to a fortunate choice of director, humour, energy and the returning guiding hand of original director Sean S. Cunningham as producer it works surprisingly well.
After JASON TAKES MANHATTAN took a nosedive at the box office, Paramount offloaded their franchise into the hands of New Line. This was a fortuitous move since Cunningham had a long-standing dream of joining his lead character in a titanic tussle with their NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET nemesis Freddy Kreuger. Though this wouldn't beat fruit until 2003, it was a sufficiently exciting prospect to bring Cunningham back into the fray. Meanwhile, he reasoned, why not refresh his property to keep it in the public eye with another story?
To that end, New Line agreed to Cunningham's risky selection of a very young director to put in charge of Jay Huguley and Deran Lorey's script. Adam Marcus was a mere twenty-three years old, which arguably makes him the joint youngest Hollywood major studio feature director in history - aside from John Singleton with BOYZ N THE HOOD for Columbia in 1991. Even Orson Welles was just shy of his twenty-sixth birthday when his mighty CITIZEN KANE was released in 1941. Again, this could have augured badly for the resulting movie's fortunes but it proved to be an inspired choice.
Marcus's initial connection to Cunningham was that he was a best school friend of the latter's son Noel, who later studied at NYU Film School and sold a well-received screenplay to Disney that became MY BOYFRIEND'S BACK (1993). He campaigned hard for his mentor Cunningham to give him a movie to direct. When offered the next in the FRIDAY THE 13TH series, his was an understandable reaction to what was now a poison cinematic chalice: "Oh no! C'mon Sean I want a career!" he recalled in CRYSTAL LAKE MEMORIES. As a horror buff though, and with such a rare opportunity in his hands, he was smart enough to plow ahead with the very youthful zeal that would serve him well.
In hindsight, Cunningham felt that Marcus's take on the material ultimately moved too far away from the original conception and formula. At the time though, he gave his director the chance to break the chains that Marcus felt may well have inhibited any growth in the series. It certainly couldn't have hurt, as adhering to a more or less set template hadn't prevented a decline in the box office anyway. What did they have to lose?
Marcus turned out to be a solid and well-liked director on set. Like John Carl Beuchler, he maintained a fairly relaxed, light tone on set except for a grievance over filmed nudity between himself and Kari Keegan (as Final Girl Jessica) who was reluctant to be naked for one of her scenes. This seemed the only time that his lack of maturity in years let him down, as he admitted in later years. That aside, JASON GOES TO HELL is a refreshing boost to the run of films, which also aimed to excavate more of the Voorhees mythology.
A key benefit in this sequel is the higher standards on offer in actors and special effects. Almost all of the cast acquit themselves well, in particular the lovely Erin Gray as Jessica's mother Diana who adds a natural grace even as a waitress. She is supported hilariously by the odd couple of Rusty Schwimmer as her foul-mouthed force of nature restaurant owner Joey B (who delighted Marcus if not always her fellow cast by improvising additional lines during takes) and Leslie Jordan as her pint-sized paramour Shelby. The male lead Steven Freeman is well played by John D. LeMay, the only actor ever to cross over from the TV show to the movie franchise. He gave his role a gravitas that Marcus wasn't always at ease with but respected. This pays off in his sparky scenes opposite the stand-out choice of veteran screen actor Steven Williams essaying the enigmatic serial killer bounty hunter Creighton Duke.
Williams approached the role adamant that he wanted Duke to be a something of a cowboy, attending his audition with a cowboy hat, boots and a loaned outback coat. He stuck to his guns, as it were, and the film is much the better for his defined, intrepid oddball. As with LeMay, Marcus came to trust and value the commitment he gave to the part - watch the jailhouse sequence where he will only give LeMay vital information in return for breaking his fingers. Such perverse behaviour is oddly credible in a guy who's mindset is to single-mindedly pursue the most depraved hunters of humans.
Speaking of perverse, there's the premise of having Jason's spirit transmitted orally via a ghastly slug after his post-mortem heart is consumed. A portable parasite is a little too reminiscent of Cronenberg's early body horror gem SHIVERS (1975) and 1987's THE HIDDEN, but this conceit among others allows the writers and Marcus's effects team (the famous KNB - Kurtzmann, Nicotero and Berger) to achieve some strikingly gross set-pieces. Leaving aside the kinky face-shaving of one victim by Richard Gant's coroner patient zero, the kills in JASON GOES TO HELL are markedly more gory than in previous entries. Marcus realised that in the generation of sell-through VHS tapes, they could to some extent appease their frustrations about a purity of vision being compromised; they could release a tamer theatrical 'cut' and then a more gory version for home viewers. (The upward machete slicing of a female camper into two halves would never have been approved by the MPAA).
There are nevertheless two real weakness in the film. Firstly, the narrative pipeline is clogged with too many ideas to be explored. The idea that only a Voorhees can kill a Voorhees, Jessica's baby and her relationship with dubious mercenary TV show host boyfriend Steven Culp, the supernatural myth and resolution threads etc are so numerous that almost an hour of the movie had to be cut to simplify the plot.
The running time was a strange bone of contention, and worth briefly mentioning as a sidebar owing to a very unusual producer decision: Cunningham ordered the film to be shot at twenty-two frames per second like his DEEP STAR SIX due to his belief that actors perform too slowly. This resulted in an intended ninety-minute movie only being eighty minutes in actuality, hence needing another ten minutes. (Between this and the aforementioned over-running, it's a wonder the result is as coherent as it is).
The other controversial flaw is that the story's preoccupation with science-fiction trappings omit much of what fans love - the real Jason (a third time behind the mask for Kane Hodder) being seen slaughtering his prey. We only see him in action in the bravura opening SWAT-style machine-gunning entrapment and at the end, though at least he then becomes a much-awaited crowd-pleaser. Hodder was disapppointed but as a noted team player gamely went ahead and enjoyed the role as much as ever. And just to tantalise fans, the very end sees a familiar clawed hand clutch Jason's empty mask and drag it to Hell. Did this mean we were to finally get the two great Eighties horror icons together?

The fan's verdict on release was a box office of $15.9m. This would have been grim news under the old Paramount regime, yet New Line were happy enough; their aim was not to make a profitable second run for FRIDAY THE 13TH, merely to bait audiences while they awaited the teased FREDDY VS. JASON. Unfortunately, while the finer points of creative control were still to be thrashed out for the next nine years, the studio opted for another follow-on that most improbably of all would be 'out of this world'...

Wednesday 11 December 2019


After seven installments, it was becoming clear that Sean S. Cunningham's FRIDAY THE 13TH franchise was running out of steam. Whilst they still turned a profit, the producers and writers were so bereft of ideas for their location-centred horror icon that they resorted to changing Jason's location instead in increasingly desperate ways. Over the course of the next three films they would move him to hell and outer space, but not before having him carve out a slice of the Big Apple: New York City. Tragically, if this movie was a skyscraper there, they'd have condemned it for being unsafe on every level. This is easily the most abysmal entry in the series so far.
The premise had some merit when you consider how many urban horror movies there already were where a serial killer thrives anonymously in the potentially soulless urban space. Handled well with more support, maybe JASON TAKES MANHATTAN could have worked. The returning Jason actor Kane Hodder certainly felt the love from fans on the street when he filmed a defining shot standing in Times Square. Appreciative crowds had to be roped back in their hundreds during the shooting as they witnessed his backwoods big-game human hunter framed in the neon glow of the metropolis. However, under a studio regime whose only interest was in spending as little money as possible to amplify the dwindling profit margin, the finished movie was sabotaged from the outset.

Writer/director Rob Heddon approached the project sincerely. He had previously directed a couple of episodes of FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE SERIES and was delighted to be offered a crack at his own movie sequel. Although Paramount's Executive Producer Frank Mancuso Jr. was now taken up with higher class studio fare, he merely replied "Go for it" when Heddon asked how much leeway he had to kill off Jason for good. The studio knew that no matter what corner the indestructible behemoth was painted into, they'd find a way to resurrect him if the box office numbers were good enough.

Heddon's vision was to have at least half the movie take place in New York - to justify the title and get the most value out of having Jason juxtaposed against familiar city locations. In a gradual war of bottom-line inspired attrition, this was whittled down to the point where the studio would only finance a single week there. In the final edit, sixty-three of the film's one hundred minutes takes place on the so-called cruise ship that transports the graduating cast of Crystal Lake High students. In effect, the movie largely becomes JASON TAKES A CRUISE. Even the ship itself was victim to cost-cutting. The chosen one was downgraded to a cheaper, smaller craft. This ended up sinking the leaky vessel of the franchise even further.

It's best to cut a swathe through the young cast as Jason mercifully does, for this sequel features the worst performances in the series so far. There's nary a scene that goes by where a discerning viewer doesn't self-administer a face-palm of "Good grief, couldn't they have recast this guy or at least tried another take?" Even the editor's son Tim Mirkovich playing the boy Jason in hallucinations suffered by Final Girl Rennie Wickham (Jensen Daggett) is atrociously weak.

JASON TAKES MANHATTAN also contains the dullest staged kills in the franchise so far, which wouldn't be such a focus if, let's face it, that weren't their sole raison d'etre. Kelly Hu's student is simply strangled in an unimaginately shot sequence on the ship's disco floor; worse still is the teen who is merely tossed overboard! These would be forgivable if they were intended to be stronger meat pre-certification, yet Heddon had conceived most of them in multiple versions that were still tedious when extended

The only murder that stands out is the impromptu rooftop boxing bout between Jason and V.C. Dupree. This does look like a reasonable attempt at giving our hillbilly hockey-mask killer a somewhat worthy opponent. Dupree lands roughly sixty-seven authentic punches to Jason's torso, Hodder recalled, and as he staggers with convincing fatigue, inevitably Jason literally knocks his block off, sending Dupree's head spinning down onto the street.

Because of those pesky budget limitations, what are mainly passed off as New York scenes were actually filmed in Vancouver, a physical challenge as the spotless Canadian city sets had to be dirtied considerably to imitate the pre-Giuliani era in central New York.

The overall look and feel of the movie is extremely dated, a very Eighties, saturated neon cityscape coupled with a guitar and keyboard-heavy hair rock sounding score from Fred Mollin (his first as sole composer for the series). Fans of Troma films may find the tone awfully, in every sense, reminiscent of Lloyd Kaufman's deliberately bad meisterwerks, especially in its reliance on TOXIC AVENGER style chemical waste to dispatch Peter Mark Richman's humdrum uncle Charles to Rennie - and even Jason himself. Arguably this represents a comeuppance for Charles since in a flashback he gave Rennie a tough love swimming lesson by pushing her into the same Crystal Lake that Jason spent two decades unbelievably living beneath.

The aforementioned biohazard brings us to the climax that aptly takes place in a sewer. Rennie and Sean (Scott Reeves) escape from Jason as the tunnels flood with toxic liquid garbage. Heddon decided that as part of his terminal mark on the series he would finally erase the adult Jason by restoring his post-chemical body to that of the pre-pubescent innocent boy before the horror began. If this seems sufficiently well up to the former standards of nonsensical endings, you should see the one Heddon opted not to use, where the child emerges from inside the jaws of the man.

JASON TAKES MANHATTAN ultimately took relatively little in ticket sales. From a budget of $5m (almost a million over the planned $4.2m), it grossed only $8.1m, leading to a final tally of just $22.2m. For the first time, the figures showed Paramount that they could no longer coast on automatic pilot from the inherited goodwill of former sequels. There would be a gap of four years before they dared to try again...

Tuesday 10 December 2019


If the takings for JASON LIVES on its release had reflected its re-energising of the franchise, maybe FRIDAY THE 13TH could have confidently progressed in a new direction. Paramount had said they would inject higher budgets and greater care into choosing their future directors. Yet the resulting box office of $19.4m made them nervous enough to revert to what they hoped was a formula that previously made more money. With this in mind, their choice of director was actually an understandable one, but PART VII: THE NEW BLOOD ironically had too much of what had gradually eroded the series before Tom Loughlin came in.

Behind the scenes, other deals were being worked on to milk the franchise cash cow. Paramount wanted to get into the lucrative TV syndication market, producing shows that would make enough episodes to sell in perpetuity to their affiliate stations always hungry for product. They selected STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION and FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE SERIES.
The latter bore no relation to the movie series except for the title, thus circumventing the need to pay creator Sean S. Cunningham and the other owners for the use of their hockey-masked killer. This was also a smart move since it prevented their films from over-exposing him on both mediums at once. The show's idea was based around an antique shop owned by two cousins who each week sold a supernatural store object that becomes the story focus. In spite of its lack of connection, the premise ran successfully for three years, produced in a very hands-on manner by the movie franchise's former overseer Frank Mancuso Jr along with his appointed British line producer Iain Paterson and even drafting in Tom McLoughlin to direct two episodes.

Meanwhile on the big screen the studio was angling to make a crossover movie pitching Jason against competitor New Line's even greater franchise monster Freddy Kreuger. They knew this would be an eagerly-awaited sure-fire hit with fans once they could secure the rights. This proved a protracted negotiation that wasn't finally resolved till 2003 so in the meantime Paramount figured, well, why not rush out another stand-alone potboiler? They decided that this time, inspired by Freddy waiting in the wings, they would try to give Jason an equally strong opponent.

Anything that could detract from the increasingly threadbare template was welcome. Although slasher movies had peaked in 1983 (when an estimated sixty percent of Hollywood projects had some tangential connection with it), slasher-style horror was still very common. Even a mainstream blockbuster like FATAL ATTRACTION (1987) was really a highly effective stalk and slash revenge drama cloaked in A-list production values.

The studio signed up director John Carl Beuchler, to pick up the baton and helm a script by Daryl Haney. Beuchler was a calculated choice as a veteran FX artist/supervisor and horror fan, formerly apprenticed to Rick Baker and Stan Winston. He already had genre form in directing TROLL (1986) and 1988's CELLAR DWELLER. Initially though Beuchler laughed off the idea of being in charge of yet another FRIDAY THE 13TH sequel as something of a joke; he wasn't sure he could get enthused about working on a franchise with the gall to display a PART VII on its poster. Nevertheless he agreed and prepared heavily enough with storyboards to allow him to be a well-liked, relaxed leader on set. From interviews with the actors he was considered an actor's director, all the more remarkable for someone steeped in the FX world.

Screenwriter Daryl Haney didn't get along so well with Beuchler. In his CRYSTAL LAKE MEMORIES book interview, he was partly aggrieved at not being paid his full Writer's Guild fee for the extensive work he did. Moreover, Beuchler felt that the writer's take on a heroine with psychokinetic powers cleaved too close to the 1976 shocker CARRIE. Beuchler and others worked to reshape the plot into something a little more original and with a more scientifically credible manifestation of the supernatural gift. The director described the finished plot as essentially three movies in one: being similar to FIRESTARTER for the first third, the middle section a standard slasher, then the final act as a TERMINATOR versus CARRIE face-off.

Paramount took so long on deal propositions with the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET team that 1987 was the first year since 1980 that Paramount had missed releasing a Jason movie. Consequently when the wheels turned on THE NEW BLOOD, they had to turn absurdly quickly. Buechler recalled getting the job that November and the film being released the following May, which is incredibly fast even for a micro-budget, non-studio movie. The entire process moved from pre-production through shooting, post-production and scoring in just five months.

It'd be too easy to use this haste as a stick with which to beat the film since I would argue its main flaws have little to do with that burden. The weaknesses in the final product can be blamed on other factors. The most prominent one is the glaringly disappointing central performance by Lar Park Lincoln as the spookily-talented Tina. Sadly this is the only evidence of her link to talent I can detect in the film.

To be fair to Lincoln, firstly she self-deprecatingly attributes her success back then to "a very lucky time period where the blue-eyed, blonde girl was popular on every TV series and horror film. So I worked a lot". Secondly, she undertook extensive research by meeting psychics from whom she gleaned that alleged psychokinetic people succumb to uncontrollable bursts of the activity rather than being in control. She at least plays these moments as a type of possession instead of harnessed in a hokey, smouldering villain manner. However the range is very much beyond her unconvincing emoting. The script certainly aimed to give us value for money in Tina's improbable skill-set: aside from this ability, she is also subject to prescient flashes forward showing us the deaths of others, and has the gift of focusing her power to literally raise the dead - both the father her psychic cyclone killed and even Jason!

The supporting cast are a retrograde step reminiscent of old. We are treated to a gaggle of self-involved, crass twenties twerps whose actors are simply required to pluck a single grating string of character - 'the rich bitch snob', ' the self-pitying loser'  etc. To represent the parents' generation, there is the dull twosome of Terry Kiser and Susan Blu as Tina's therapist and mother respectively. This may not be their fault as the material is soap opera lacklustre. Kiser worked extensively in TV and is best known as the pliable corpse in the WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S movies.

The best casting decision by Beuchler was to give the role of Jason to stunt co-ordinator and actor Kane Hodder in the first of his unprecedented four consecutive turns at bat (amongst other implements) that made him a favourite with fans. Though Hodder was shorter and less bulky than C.J. Graham from JASON LIVES, he was an inspired fit for Beuchler's vision; he wanted a frame with a little less mass in order to support the prosthetics he intended to have applied to Hodder. This in no way detracts from Hodder's acting -  he inhabits Jason with the shrewd physicality of a real actor, never allowed his creation to run, which always subtracted threat from previous players. There is rather the deliberate stalking pursuit that always made pre-Millenial zombies an inexorable terror. Beuchler and Hodder got to know and respect each on Renny Harlin's PRISON (1987) on which Buechler was Makeup Effects Supervisor and had subjected Hodder to live worms as an electric chair occupant. Clearly he remembered Hodder as a fearless good sport!  This is just as well - in the climax of THE NEW BLOOD Tina drops an exterior porch set on the unfazed stunt supremo that Hodder guessed weighed about seven hundred pounds. Also, he set a record in this movie for the longest continuous full body stunt burn lasting forty seconds during his final face-off with Tina.
Whilst he did what he could to generate something from the actors, Beuchler was more memorable in enhancing the physical appearance of his leading nemesis. Here there was more elaborate face and body makeup, reflective of greater visceral detail and a sum of his past series wars (a motorblade facial scar from the lake battle at the climax of JASON LIVES, for example)
Beuchler was less successful in carrying out his conception for Jason's comeuppance. The shock ending would see Tina's dad burst out of the lake to rescue her by grabbing Jason. It was novel if utterly bananas logic-wise, but what made it worse was that the planned zombie deterioration makeup on actor John Otrin was deleted from the daily schedule without warning by one of the producers, so what remains is the even more ludicrous sight of her perfectly well-preserved father popping up.

The other failing in THE NEW BLOOD is the tame unoriginality of most of the murders. This was courtesy of the franchise's constant role as the whipping boy of the MPAA - " a group of housewives in Encino" disparaged Beuchler. The movie had to be submitted nine times in total for cuts, seven of which came back bearing the dreaded 'X' rating - meaning that version wouldn't be allowed trade advertising and would be stigmatised at the same level as porn to drastic box office effect. One of the editors, Barry Zetlin, complained that the board kept shifting their goal posts by opposing to new sequences upon each submission.  The only killing that bore any hint of novelty is the bludgeoning against a tree of a victim still in her sleeping bag. This was reduced to one single swing. The MPAA was particularly sensitive to any immediate cuts from sex acts to murder - admittedly the sex/killing interface is an area that our own BBFC has always been squeamish about) - so they decreed that something must be interposed so any perceived connection isn't as blatant.

 One welcome editorial decision was the removal of Beuchler's 'extra' ending. Following the rushed close of a dreary hand-holding reassurance in the ambulance between Tina and Nick (Kevin Spirtas), we were then meant to see a lone fisherman on the lake who is attacked by a submerged Jason. Thankfully we are spared this derivative and predictable coda.

The only other element I thought benefitted the film was Fred Mollin's music. Paramount had allegedly nickel and dimed Manfredini by thinking they could cannibalise his existing music that they legally owned instead of re-employing him. They then realised they had run out of usable themes half way through, so Mollin was hired by Iain Paterson. His contribution augments the film well with distinctive instrumental pieces and a meaty, industrial hammer of a title theme. It seems Manfredini couldn't have done the film anyway as he was at work on Sean S. Cunningham's DEEP STAR SIX and did not enjoy splitting his attention across multiple projects at once.

THE NEW BLOOD generated $8.2m in its first three days from a budget of £2.8m. Going into profit in its opening weekend still kept the FRIDAY THE 13TH sequels ongoing as a low-cost, self-financing machine . Ticket sales did however drop off sharply afterwards. Paramount also noticed that New Line's NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4: THE DREAM MASTER eclipsed it with an opening weekend of  $12.8m rising to a final tally of $49.1m, beating their series resoundingly and from a third sequel.

As we shall see, whilst Freddy's owners prevaricated, FRIDAY THE 13TH would deteriorate into increasingly silly shark-jumping over the next few years...