Monthly Archives: January 2015
The Unseen 1980
Directed by: Danny Steinmann
Starring: Stephen Furst, Barbara Bach, Sydney Lassick
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
With the process of a studio backed film to go from pre-production to post production taking quite a while, I’m amazed that so many early slashers managed to ‘borrow’ so much from Halloween so quickly. Carpenter’s hit was released on October the 31st 1978, but within a few months, there were already titles like The Demon that were definitely trampling the borders of creative inspiration. That isn’t the case so much with The Unseen though, because despite being labelled as a stalk and slash flick everywhere you look, it really doesn’t play by the rules of a typical genre piece.
It was one of the first films that I came across on big box VHS, but back then, I never rated it as a favourite. I hadn’t bothered with it for at least twenty-fve-years before I sat down to write this review and I was keen to see what I’d make of it now.
After a mix-up with the bookings at their hotel, three female journalists are forced to seek somewhere else to stay. Due to there being a celebratory festival in town, rooms are impossible to come by, but they find salvation in a jovial museum owner. He lives with his wife in a hotel that has been closed for ages, but after considering their panicked situation, he allows them to stay there. What he doesn’t tell them is that his son that lives in the basement doesn’t know how to play friendly…
I was reminded of this feature recently after completing my review of Silent Scream for the site. The two films have more in common than just an almost identical synopsis, because they both suffered fairly troubled productions. Whilst after an extensive reshoot, ‘Scream ended up close to what Denny Harris had envisioned, director Danny Steinmann was so disappointed with the final print of The Unseen that he asked to have his name removed from the credits. His justification was that the producers had edited out the majority of the big scares and left his feature unrecognisable. This intrigued me no end, because I wondered how a director’s cut of the footage might look. Steinmann never pursued the opportunity outside of a few interview comments, but it’d be interesting to know how much was removed or replaced.
The Unseen has its fans amongst slasher critics, but I must admit that I’m not really one of them. Whilst there is a lot to be credited that I’ll happily tell you about, I feel that in its entirety, it’s just a bit too odd for its own good. It spends the majority of the runtime building up an antagonist in the traditional fashion, but his revelation throws a swerve ball at us that’s just, well, alien. Without giving too much away, the bogeyman turns out to be more clumsy than creepy and then in a truly bizarre move, the script gives him an incomprehensible layer of pathos. He then makes a swift exit in a scene that’s as mushy as the death of Bambi’s mother, only to pass the mantle to another villain that is nowhere near as scary. I understand that they were trying to keep us on our toes by giving us something new to fear, but the idea is lost in its execution. We had waited so long for a glimpse of what we expected to be a hulking menace, only to be forced to change our perception at the last minute.
Another thing that you’ll notice is that the film is extremely slow paced. It plods along like a soap opera for large chunks, but then launches into an outrageous nudity scene that feels out of place. It does manage to build enough of a tone to keep us interested though and we do get a couple of creatively planned murder scenes. The first sees a young woman have her neck broken in a steel trap door and it’s juxtaposed with shots of a chicken being decapitated in a back garden farmhouse. This is one of a number of slightly off-kilter, yet effective moments, with the majority of the rest coming courtesy of an eccentric portrayal by Sydney Lassick.
I mentioned that I’d be interested in seeing a director’s cut of The Unseen and that’s because from a pure filmmaking perspective, it is simply a SLASH above. As I have already said, Lassick’s erratic characterisation really has to be seen to be believed. He shared top billing with Barbara Bach, who is also superb as the hapless heroine. One could be forgiven for thinking that the former Mrs Ringo Starr had been hired only for her looks, but she is totally believable as the woman in peril. My favourite performances though came from Lelia Goldoni as Virginia, Lassick’s long-suffering wife, and Stephen Furst who played his son. It’s not an exaggeration to state that if awards could be given for horror film dramatisations, Furst would have at least walked away with a nomination. It’s a totally different person from his comedic turn in Animal House and he’s quite brilliant with the level of his conviction. We also get some classy cinematography in and around the gothic Victorian mansion that helps sustain an uneasy atmosphere that manifests itself credibly during the climax.
This is a tough film to review, because in many ways it embodies everything that I usually spend paragraphs criticising the lack of in other features. The thing is, you can photograph a crystal with the best lens that money can buy, but it’ll never be a diamond. There are certain rules of horror that can’t be broken and what we’re left with is a film that over promises and under delivers. It’s a shame that we will never see what Steinmann really intended, but there are those that like it, so check around before you take my word as gospel
Final Girl √√√
Slumber Party Massacre 1982
Directed by: Amy Jones
Starring: Michelle Michaels, Robin Stille, Debra De Liso
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
I’ve been putting off reviewing Slumber Party Massacre for quite some time and I’m not sure exactly why. It has become a notorious example of peak period slasher movies and went on to launch a long list of tributes and rip-offs. Roger Corman, arguably THE most prolific producer of low-budget clones of box office hits ever, had taken his time to jump on-board the stalk and slash bandwagon. When he finally did though, he used his flair for understanding cinematic trends to develop a feature that would become highly successful.
The film began life as a parody of teenie-kill flicks with the added allure of being pencilled by a female-scribe. Controversy had began surrounding the genre amongst left-wing critics and feminist groups that felt the movies were riddled with misogyny and unnecessary violence. Rita Mae Brown had decided to make light of the situation and show that it wasn’t only men that could contribute to the craze. She wrote a story that poked fun at the themes that were under the spotlight called, ‘Sleepless Nights’. Once Roger Corman got hold of the screenplay, he maintained some of the humour, but shot it as an out and out slasher flick. The rest, as they say, is history.
A group of sorority sisters decide to have a celebratory slumber party whilst one of their friend’s parents are away on vacation. Little do they know that an escaped lunatic is loitering around the location. It’s left up to new transfer Valerie and her younger sister to try and prevent a bloodbath.
I hadn’t seen Slumber Party Massacre for many years and in honesty, it turned out to be much better than I had remembered. My recollections of a half-hearted rehash of the traditional clichés has been smashed by re-visiting the movie as a more-experienced viewer. It’s perhaps because the last copy that I saw was the heavily edited UK print released as The Slumber Party Murders. Watching it now, totally uncut, after all that time really changed the idea that I had in mind for a rating and I’m so glad that I’ve given it another look.
Any thoughts that director Amy Jones and author Rita Brown were looking to support criticisms of anti-feminism are destroyed by an opening that’s extremely gratuitous. In the first five minutes alone, a key character whips off her top to give us a boob shot and soon after we get mounds of T&A from a lengthy group shower scene. Jones doesn’t hang around to introduce her antagonist, but the first two victims are barely given a line of dialogue before they’re killed and the earlier parts of the story take a while to settle themselves. I expected the worst when we got to see the assailant, a pint-sized loon that looks like an average everyday Joe, almost immediately. Horror works much better when a bogeyman is left somewhat in the shadows and upon revelation, at least looks the part. Thankfully after four false-scares in a row (a record?), the girls get hungry and spice up their evening by ordering a pizza. When they are greeted upon opening the door by a corpse with his eyes plucked out, the momentum seriously begins to tighten.
What I think works best about Slumber Party Massacre is the way that Jones handles the actions of her characters. There’s a scene where two girls barricade themselves in a room to hide from the intruder downstairs. Thanks mostly to some genuine dialogue, you really can believe that this is how they would act in that situation. It’s not always a grim depiction of reality that we get though, because there’s a comedic moment when one of the youngsters prizes the pizza from the dead delivery guy’s hand. She then states that she feels much better after eating a hearty slice. Robin Stille, as the heroine, had obviously been ordered to watch Laurie Strode and base her performance on that of Jamie Leigh Curtis’. Whilst she doesn’t hit the same levels of scream queen perfection, she creates a sympathetic lead that we grow to bond with.
Much like Prom Night before it, Slumber Party does borrow heavily from Carpenter’s Halloween. There are many parts here that are weaker imitations of sequences from that film, but because they’re sharply delivered, we don’t really bother to pick on them as much. Jones pulls off a number of effective shocks and scares, with one set-piece that sees two males run out of the house to search for help, proving to be impressively tense. This leads to a bloody stabbing that’s inter-cut with a scene from Corman’s Hollywood Boulevard and it’s stylishly edited together. Due to the murder of some sympathetic personalities, we are never totally sure who will survive the assassin’s drill. The conclusion wraps it all up neatly and for a film that was supposed to be riddled with humour, it’s actually quite downbeat.
As I have alluded to, Slumber Party Massacre does fall foul of not improving upon ingredients that we’ve seen done better elsewhere. Also, I do still believe that it was lucky to receive the adulation and amount of imitations that it has acquired since its release. I’ve been captured by some of its charms though and it is one of the better peak entries. It’s funny that we live in a world that is light years away in terms of technology from the early eighties. One thing that definitely hasn’t improved is the production of slasher movies. They don’t make them like this anymore no matter how hard they try.
Final Girl √√√
Blood Sisters 1987
Directed by: Roberta Findlay
Starring: Amy Brentano, Shannon McMahon, Dan Eriksen
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
I’ve obviously never met her, but I’d imagine Roberta Findlay to be the kind of woman that would come along to watch a match and then join you at the bar to get smashed on Jägerbombs after. The type of cool chick that a guy can hang out with and tell her everything as if she were one of the lads. I think this because exploitation films from the seventies were almost always male-dominated productions. With some help from her hubby (fellow director Michael) though, Roberta often managed to totally out-sleaze the competition and her filmography makes for interesting reading. She took softcore porn to the boundaries of hardcore territory with The Alter of Lust in 1971. Then three-years later she created controversy (and profit) by the bucketload with a fake pretending to be real Snuff movie that was imaginatively titled, Snuff. It had began life as a proto-slasher (many of her and Michael’s movies were), but producer Alan Shackleton tipped off the Police and spread word that the murders committed in the footage were in fact real. This brought audiences flocking and it has become something of a Grindhouse classic since.
The birth of the slasher genre offered former-exploitation directors an opportunity to return to the frontline. Successful titles like Halloween and Friday the 13th were not a million miles away from the style of film that they had been churning out over a decade earlier, which made it an even more logical step. It took Roberta Findlay until 1987, but she finally released Blood Sisters and I couldn’t help but be excited by the possibilities. What kind of slasher movie would a person responsible for everything from almost hardcore porn to sadomasochistic thrillers bring to the table?
The set-up is as traditional as they come. A group of sorority pledges have to spend the night in an old dilapidated mansion to become fully fledged members. Little do they know that the site was once a knocking shop that is reportedly haunted after a gruesome murder thirteen-years earlier. Unfortunately for the girls, it seems that a psychopathic intruder dressed in the clothing of the deceased prostitute has come along to spoil the party.
In fairness to Findlay, she had proven in films such as The Clamdigger’s Daughter that underneath all the sexploitation, she was more than capable of handling drama and extracting good performances from a cast. Whilst Blood Sisters is not amongst the best of her work, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I enjoyed watching it. Running a SLASH above means that I have to sit through tonnes of modern slashers when sometimes all I really want is a dose of cheesy eighties trash. Thankfully, it’d be hard to get more trashy than this one. Much like the fat kid at school that wears broken spectacles and gets picked last for the soccer team, this has become something of an easy target to be mocked. I had a browse online to see what other people were saying about it and the general consensus is that it offers very little to be appreciated. Whilst I agree that there’s not much here in terms of credible filmmaking, I have to admit that Sisters deserves a little more love from slasher buffs than it currently receives.
There’s nothing more hilarious than seeing someone try their hardest to achieve a feat, whilst it falls down all around them. TV shows like You’ve Been Framed or Funniest Home Videos have made a fortune out of broadcasting such scenarios for audience pleasure. There’s a good example of this during Sisters in an early character definition scene. It’s set at a party and Findlay packs every shot with extras bustling past the lens in a bid to bring the environment to life. The problem is that they act in such a cheesy manner that it ends up looking extremely comedic. This is applicable especially to the sultry Diana, who after admitting that she has three dates lined up for the evening, boogies on down whilst a trio of jocks leer over her and try their hardest to dance at the same speed as the person closest to them. I doubt there was even music playing when the scene was shot.
When we do finally reach the fabled ‘haunted whorehouse of horror’, the tone does become somewhat darker. All of the girls are sent on a scavenger hunt, which means they split into pairs and head off to secluded corners of the spacious building. Whilst it does take maybe ten-minutes too long for the maniac to finally get to work (an hour in fact), Findlay does a sterling job of keeping things interesting in the meantime. Our characters are possessed briefly by the ghosts of former prostitutes that worked there, which is peculiar because we only saw one of them murdered in the beginning(?). Despite that, some of these sequences are strangely effective, especially an erotic scene that’s seen through a reflection. It’s hinted that mirrors are doorways of sort to the afterlife; an interesting concept that’s never really taken anywhere further.
Without a doubt the reason that Sisters is not rated more highly is because after such a long build up, the bogeyman finally arrives and rushes through a bunch of diluted killings without any suspense. If Findlay had taken the approach of say, Pieces for example, we’d be looking at this with a similar level of adulation. Instead we have a film that has the cheese, hilarious dialogue and acting, but excludes the gore and grittiness. A director with such an extensive experience of Grindhouse pictures should have known better than most what ingredients were necessary. When it comes to the horror parts though, she flies through them with minimal application. I had trouble picking my choice of final girl to do battle with the lunatic, but there’s a reason why I found it so hard, which I won’t spoil for you.
To give you a better idea, Blood Sisters is extremely similar to the previous year’s Girls School Screamers. In fact I could go you one better by saying that it was almost completely reproduced by Jim Wynorski in 1991 and titled Sorority House Massacre Part II. If Findlay had gone with what I guess would be her natural instinct and been more exploitive with the death scenes, we’d be looking at a trash slasher classic. In the end though, a few softcore embraces and bemusing characters don’t do enough to salvage it. I liked the fact that it was such a clear postcard of eighties fashion and goofiness and simply for that reason, if very little else, it does deserve to be seen.
Killer Guise: √√
aka Cut Throat
Directed by: Keith Walley
Starring: Luciano Saber, Kate Norby, Raquel Baldwin
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
You know what? I had a great idea the other day for the opening of a slasher film. A girl is all alone in her house late at night, when the telephone rings. She answers it and a demented voice that she doesn’t recognise begins taunting her with personal knowledge that he has about her life. At first she wonders if it could be a prank, but then the deranged caller becomes more threatening and asks if she wants to play a game. We soon learn that he has a family member/boyfriend tied up close by, and if she doesn’t complete the quiz, the loved one will die. So then we… Hold on, my phone is ringing…. “Oh hi Mr Craven. Yes, of course I know what a lawsuit is, why do you ask?”
This totally forgotten entry from the boom years of the second cycle starts pretty much the way that I’ve written above. Whilst I appreciate that it may have been a subtle comment on the magpie nature of the slasher genre, it doesn’t really hint at satire and instead plays it incomprehensibly straight. Would a film really be bold enough to rip off its obvious inspiration (Scream) so openly?
A film crew that are working on an up and coming slasher movie called Death Blade become the target for a brutal masked killer. As more crew and cast members end up dead, the leading lady decides to hunt out the murderer.
Whilst watching Scared, I was reminded of a very good Tim Robbins film from 1992 called The Player. Aside from having an intriguing synopsis, The Player became renowned for an eight-minute tracking shot that was truly a miraculous slice of cinematography. It wasn’t only the length of running time that made the sequence so impressive, but also the amount of action that was perfectly coordinated all the way through. There were a large number of actors working in conjunction and on cue to maintain the momentum, which really stood out as an ambitious director going the extra mile. Scared includes a somewhat shorter (96 seconds), but similar in craft set-piece that immediately created the impression that we were watching a stylish slice of motion picture development. In fact, with so much dialogue revolving around the background details of movie production, I was convinced that we may have a slasherised homage of type to Roger Altman’s Player classic. Unfortunately, like a senior manager that berates his team for their lack of focus whilst clearly logged on to Facebook, Scared doesn’t lead by the example that its script brags about.
I remember a time when even the worst slasher movies included characters that we kind of enjoyed watching. Give me a van full of numbskulls from The Prey or Don’t go in the Woods over a group of conceited silicone-enhanced brats any day. Scared has a cast that’s so deplorably unlikeable that I failed to understand the screenwriters’ logic for even bothering to include a central character. They were all involved in some kind of inane love triangle that made them look like a bunch of junkie sluts. I forget the exact details, but our heroine Samantha had been passed round more of the crew members than the script they were working on and her buddy was portrayed to have the intelligence of a tadpole. They set out to uncover the identity of the masked killer, but this wasn’t much fun for us, because we had guessed it ages ago. It turns out that there’s a tag team of homicidal maniacs on the loose, which I think I might have seen somewhere else ( Mr Craven, whilst I have you on the line… you should really sue Keith Walley.)
When a mystery is really crappy in a slasher movie, it’s an easy slant for a critic to call it Scooby Doo-esque. With Scared, we don’t even need to resort to such slander, because the final girl and her partner set out on a mission to catch the psychopaths using a gimmick that they admit was learned from an episode of Scooby Doo(?). This involves them both dressing in identical disguises as the killers so that they can trick the villains into thinking that they’ve come across their partner-in-crime and not an intended victim. Sound confusing? Well it gets that way, when the final girl bumps into the assailant and they roll about on the floor in exactly the same attire. Robert McKee from Adaptation said that voice-narration is a cheat’s way of depicting what’s going on in a scene. I can only assume that he hadn’t experienced Scared’s methodology of having a conclusive battle between two characters that are wearing exactly the same masks and garments. Perhaps they could have placed two luminous arrows on the screen above each participant and scribbled, ‘bad guy’ and ‘the one we’re rooting for’ to make it clearer? Then in what I guess could only have been included as a deliberate piece of inadvertent humour, the heroine challenges the maniac, who had thus far chopped up about 6 of her colleagues, to a knife fight. You know, as you do. How we laughed. It’s almost as dumb as trying to track down a psychopathic killer by yourself… Oh yeah… Oh…. they did that too. Oh well. Mind you, if you meet cops as incompetent as those featured here in real life, you might just feel the need to start your own investigation. I forgot about the unwritten rule that makes detectives in crud horror films a) insanely inept and b) unable to purchase a normal suit and tie combo. Damn it.
Bad slasher movies are two-a-penny, but what made this one worse was that it talked a good game. It’s ironic that the script was filled with choice lines about making ‘the next Scream‘ and ‘the need for a good twist and T&A’ but Scared doesn’t practice what it preaches. It was released in the US as Cut-Throat; a title that I guess was safer than Cut-Off-My-Own-Head-With-A-Blunt-Hacksaw, which is what, at times, I felt like doing. The awful acting (the director guy was abysmal), terrible inept dialogue, characters that vanish without trace from scene to scene and predictable mystery are totally at odds with some creative cinematography. It’s a shame that it was totally wasted in this junk.
Killer Guise: √√√√
Final Girl √
The Silent Scream 1979
Directed by: Denny Harris
Starring: Barbara Steele, Rebecca Balding, Cameron Mitchell
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Perhaps it’s because they were generally more amateurish projects, or maybe it’s just that funding was often hard to secure, but I’ve always wondered why so many slasher movies from the peak years suffered problematic productions. Titles like Moon In Scorpio, Scalps, Truth or Dare, Killer Party and especially Curtains never saw light of day as they were initially intended and the issues were certainly visible in the final print. Silent Scream was completed in 1977, but was considered unreleasable by director Denny Harris. He hired an entire new cast and brought in Jim and Ken Wheat to re-write the script at his own expense. Together they decided to make it more similar to the boom that had swept cinema around that time, the slasher genre.
Now the major difference between the titles that I mentioned earlier and Silent Scream is that for once the movie that we ended up with worked superbly. Whereas for example Curtains never escaped its muddled backbone, if I hadn’t have read the stories of a troubled shoot, I would have been none the wiser here.
In the rush to find housing before the new semester, four students end up at a recently refurbished house overlooking a remote beach. A couple of hours after they move in, they are shocked when one of their number is brutally murdered by an unseen fiend during the night. Little do they know that the deranged killer is closer than they could ever have imagined.
Whilst I have no doubt in my mind that Halloween played a part in the inspiration for the final version of Silent Scream, the fact that it was released so close to Carpenter’s classic means that it avoids many of the traditional trappings. Instead, the Wheat brothers seem to have followed the blueprint of features like Black Christmas and Psycho to come up with the synopsis for this doom-laden thriller. Even if we do get the standard troupe of teenage victims, there’s no sign of trademarks like the have sex and die rule. I found it refreshing that the heroine’s characterisation didn’t follow the path that would become a cliché and the story feels closer to reality because of that. The four key personalities are so well developed during the opening scenes that it’s tough to chose who we think will succumb to the killer’s blade first. This gives the picture an extra shade of suspense that only adds to the solid mystery.
Harris had been a big fan of horror movies and he rallied valiantly to get his first film produced. After watching how professionally everything had been put together, I had no idea that this was the work of a debutant and I’m still surprised that it’s his one and only motion picture credit. A slick juxtaposition of fixed camera angles and shots that loom ominously give the feature an extremely polished look and a fitting score from Richard Kellaway adds an extra layer of class. What impressed me most about the film was that the screenwriters took something as unoriginal as a tale of a bogeyman in the basement and twisted it continuously keep viewers guessing. The decision to include a corny doo-wop tune as the psycho’s calling card worked along the same methodology as utilising childlike themes such as a clown or a doll. Once combined, these elements gave Silent Scream an incredibly creepy tone of subtle menace that remained constant throughout.
It’s often forgotten that the art of acting is not just spouting lines of dialogue with emotion. I was saying to a friend just recently that if Brad Pitt ends his career without an Oscar, it would be almost criminal. It could have been easy for him to become a Rom-Com king and trade on his looks, but he always chooses audacious roles that for whatever reason he hasn’t yet been acknowledged for. Barbara Steele shows here that she can deliver a performance via body language and gestures that puts her a level above her peers. She steals every scene in a brilliant portrayal that must’ve motivated those around her to up their game. The dysfunctional family stereotype is skewed to perfection and it never reaches the realms of over indulgence.
Silent Scream is a brilliant slasher movie and amongst the best of the genre. Whilst it may be more of a Hitchcockian nod to Psycho than a true teenie-kill feature, it delivers blood and scares like the best of them. Quite why it is not as fondly thought of as The Burning et al is an enigma and I definitely think you should re-visit it sooner rather than latter.
Final Girl √√√