Pity the poor movie buff at Halloween. Chances are you’ve been invited to a costume party and you want to showcase your geek bonafides by coming up with a perfect costume based on one of your favourite movies. Most people wouldn’t sweat it and would just throw on their roughest approximation of Indiana Jones, Han Solo, or a Ghostbuster and be done with it. But you’re here reading this, so you’re obviously not most people. You want to be different. To stand out. To be creative and original. But it’s such a fine line to walk. Be too original and you risk obscurity—dressing as a character from a movie no one else at the party has seen or even heard about. There's only so many times you can describe the plot of even your most cherished B-Movie before that shit just gets old.
That's why for the next few weeks I’m going to examine several potential costume choices and evaluate their pros and cons. My hope is that this public service gets people thinking about their Hollywood-inspired costume choices and prevents another tedious Halloween season filled with Freddys, Jasons, Batmans, Jokers, Slave Leias and the like.
Today we’re starting off with a costume whose main benefit is its ease of execution, and whose main disadvantage is that no normal person will know who you are and will likely find it extremely offensive. That said, if your friends are as geeky and odd as you are, it could prove to be a big hit.
From a 1980 movie starring Mrs. Ringo Starr and directed by the man who gave us Savage Streets I give you “Junior” Keller:
For those that have never seen The Unseen “Junior” is the severely disabled result of the incestuous union between Sydney Lassick and Lelia Goldoni, who try to keep him locked up in their basement. Unfortunately, their peace is invaded by a trio of female journalists who become stuck in the abandoned town in which they live. “Junior” decides to have some “fun” “playing” with them, with the result that everyone but Barbara Bach ends up dead.
To say that “Junior” represents a somewhat unfortunate depiction of the mentally and physically handicapped is something of an understatement. Essentially an adult with Down syndrome who’s been kept in a basement all his life, he’s more pathetic and sad than horrific, but that doesn’t stop director Danny Steinmann (who for some reason chose to have his name taken off this picture, but not Friday the 13th Part V) from portraying him as an actual movie monster—a creature to be feared rather than pitied. Perhaps the most bizarre thing about the character is that he’s portrayed by (an uncredited) Stephen Furst, who just two years earlier had starred as Flounder in Animal House, the biggest comedy of all time.
Hollywood sure is a bitch, isn’t she?
So let’s get to the costume numbers:
Difficulty to Create: 1/10 Throw on a dirty torn white T-shirt, a bag on your head, dirty white diapers, grab a worn out teddy bear, cover yourself in dirt and learn how to make your best “retard” face and you’re golden.
Obscurity: 8/10 True horror and B-Movie buffs might be able to figure it out, but no one else will have a clue.
Fun Factor: 7/10 Not only are you going to be the most comfortably clad person at the party, but you’ll also enjoy spending the whole night speaking only in unintelligible grunts and moans.
Potential "Sexy" Version (for the ladies): 10/10 Tighter T-shirt, thong "diaper", and it's all good.
Might Be Confused With: Sloth from The Goonies.
Total Score: 4.5/10 As comfortable and easy to throw together as this costume is, there’s no getting around the fact that you’re going to have tell everyone you meet the plot of a 1980 movie they have no interest in ever seeing.
Hollywood is a fickle mistress. One minute she’s a Brazilian supermodel who goes down on you in the middle of Spago and begs you to have a threesome with her even hotter Australian supermodel best friend, and then the next her lawyers are serving you a restraining order that says if you’re even on the same continent as her, the police are allowed to club you to death in front of your crying children.
And that’s how the pretty people get treated! It’s so much worse for the merely talented, who manage to win the celebrity lottery by being cast in the right role in the right movie at the right time. Oh, man, does Hollywood hate those assholes, especially if they’re unlucky enough to get nominated for an Oscar for their efforts. Sure they’ll give them a movie or two to star in, but once those movies-no-one-asked-for inevitably tank those poor bastards are lucky if their agent can get them an audition for a dog food commercial.
In need of interesting content, I’ve decided to occasionally mock these one-hit wonders by not only pointing them out, but also by singling out the lowest moment of their subsequent careers—the one film that well and truly should have driven them out of the business forever (but probably didn’t).
Tonight’s entry is one of the just plain oddest dudes to ever earn any attention from the Academy. The fact that he was eventually perfectly cast as Mr. Mxyptlk in the dreadful 80s Superboy syndicated TV show pretty much says it all.
A theatre and television actor who specialized in playing beatniks and children (everyone remembers that episode of Star Trek where he played the leader of a group of kids on a planet where going through puberty was fatal—he was 27 at the time), Pollard came to national attention when he was cast as C.W. Moss in Arthur Penn and Warren Beatty’s Bonnie & Clyde (producer/star Warren would get upset if I credited it solely to its director). As Moss, Pollard proved to be a unique and intriguing screen presence, which—combined with the critical and popular success of the film—resulted in a Best Supporting Actor nomination.
Despite being the clearest possible archetype of a “character actor”, Hollywood made a game attempt to allow him to carry some movies. He co-starred with Robert Redford in the period motorcycle drama Little Fauss and Big Halsey and played the title character in the very 70s revisionist western Dirty Little Billy. The failure of the last film, combined with his genuine oddness, quickly halted his trajectory and he pretty much disappeared for most of the 70s (the one decade you’d think would appreciate him the most), only to reappear in many terrible B-Movies and the occasional studio picture during the 80s and 90s. Whether in the hilariously misguided American Gothic, the charming Roxanne or blockbusters like Dick Tracy and Tango & Cash, he always played the same role—the really weird elfin guy.
Looking through his IMDb page there are a lot of low moments to choose from. I’ve already mentioned American Gothic, but it’s more weird than terrible. Fast Food is pretty miserable, but it has post-porn unbelievably hot era Traci Lords in it, so it too must be allowed to pass. I reviewed The Patriot for Flick Attack and thought it was horrible, but I now have no memory whatsoever of Pollard even being in it. Night Visitor is more bland than bad (which actually makes it that much harder to sit through) so that just leaves one clear choice for the lowest moment of Pollard’s post Oscar-nomination career. That’s right, folks:
Everyone remembers the original Sleepaway Camp. It’s the slasher classic where the killer turns out to be a twelve year-old girl with an enormous cock (spoiler). Much fewer people remember the two subsequent sequels, and if they do, it’s only because they starred Bruce Springsteen’s sister!
Having set the cinema world aflame with her role as the first Pat Benatar lookalike in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Pamela Springsteen was cast as the now adult version of the original film’s transgendered murderer. Unfortunately this didn’t lead to her achieving iconic horror franchise status, since the filmmakers (the same dude’s responsible for the above-mentioned Fast Food) decided to do something completely different that no one had ever done before and make a slasher movie that made fun of slasher movies! Even better, they did it twice!
Confused folks at the video store might have thought that the existence of Sleepaway Camp III indicated that there was a demand for the story to continue after Sleepaway Camp II, but the reality was that the filmmakers pulled a Salkind (look it up) and shot the two films back to back.
Truthfully it’s hard to tell which of the two are worse. Like all “funny” slasher movies, they are neither funny nor frightening, but Pollard’s only in the third one, so it doesn’t really matter. The sad thing is, he might very well be the best thing in it.
For shame, Sleepaway Camp III.
Apparently Pollard’s still alive, but he hasn’t been up to much lately. Rob Zombie cast him in House of 1000 Corpses, which is just the sort of thing you’d expect Rob Zombie to do (he’s such a scamp!). As you probably, guessed Pollard never did take home that Oscar. He lost that year to George Kennedy, who won it for his memorable role in Cool Hand Luke—a great performance in a classic movie!
Considered the worst movie to ever win a Best Picture Oscar by many of the people who write for this blog, this Cecil B. DeMille circus drama is an insomniac’s nightmare—it’ll make you want to sleep more than anything else in the world, but will piss you off just enough to keep you awake.
Bet you didn’t know that Jesus was Swedish, did you? Long, boring and terrible, but still worth watching just to enjoy the hilariously inappropriate celebrity cameos. If you can’t quote John Wayne’s only line in this movie, you probably don't belong on this site.
This Jan Michael Vincent live action Disney flick actually isn’t that bad, but it turns out that there aren’t that many movies with the word “Greatest” in the title, so some unassuming film was bound to suffer. Life’s unfair sometimes. That said it’s the only movie of the four that’s so obscure I couldn’t find a decent image of the poster for it.
This biopic starring the legend himself is 100x better than Ali, but that says far more about how much Michael Mann fucked up one of the most compelling stories in American 20th century history than how good this flick is.
As you can see I've adopted a new strategy here at Vanity Fear (AKA Still The House of Glib until I get the banner changed) and instead of writing a new longer post every couple of weeks, have decided to contribute shorter daily posts instead. That way, experience has proven to me, leads to people actually visiting the site on occasion, which leads to me experiencing happiness, which leads to me not pressing the big red button the aliens gave me for when I could no longer justify the further existence of my destructive species.
But since I know some of you out there actually enjoyed my longer pieces I wanted to take the time to lead you to some I've recently written for another awesome blog, Paul Corupe's excellent Canuxploitation. It's not everyday you get to write for a website that actually coined a phrase, so I've been excited by the opportunity a random email I sent to Paul has afforded me. I've contributed three reviews and one amusing list thus far to Paul's site and I thought I'd link to them here for those of you who haven't yet confronted them in their natural habitat.
Someone thought that ripping off Dumb and Dumber by recasting the leads with Pamela Anderson and Denise Richards was a surefire way to B.O. magic. My review explains why they were incredibly stupid for thinking this.
There are some who tell us that the purpose of art is to hold a mirror to society and expose us to the truths we cannot see in the workaday world. They are wrong. Art is about naked ladies. Anyone with a working brain can tell you that.
Show me a time and place and I’ll show you a bunch of artists depicting the glory of the unclad bod. From the Venus of Willendorf to Marilyn Monroe’s famous calendar, the truly wise have always known where true art lies.
People forget that pre-Hayes Code it was possible to spot nude bodies in mainstream films like Ecstasy and Tarzan and His Mate, but once studio self-censorship took over it was up to the independents to give audiences the art they craved.
How badly did people want to see the naked parts of a lady? Bad enough to willingly pay admission to see Mom & Dad, a film that showed a woman’s vagina in close-up detail—all you had to do was ignore the baby coming out of it, which many members of the all-male audience (the sexes were strictly segregated during screenings) were only too happy to do.
Fortunately for pervs art aficionados everywhere a new breed of “educational” films arrived in the form of the “nudie cutie”, which exploited the popularity of naturalist colonies for the enjoyment of all. Eventually filmmakers tired of the fake documentary format and decided to add comedic plots to their collections of artfully composed T&A. Most prominent of these innovators was former battlefield photographer Russ Meyer, whose The Immoral Mr. Teas and Eve and the Handyman proved to be the true classics of the genre.
When the Hayes Office reluctantly allowed a bare breast to appear in Sidney Lumet’s 1964 drama The Pawnbroker, it was only a matter of time before the floodgates opened and the art began to freely flow. By the end of the decade, nudity was a regular part of the mainstream film going experience. In the seventies it almost became de rigueur.
Never ones to be left behind, low budget B-Movie filmmakers rededicated their efforts in providing audiences with the art they craved. Meyer flourished and rose to the level of offbeat auteur with such efforts as Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and SuperVixens. Entire subgenres arose based on the promise of female flesh, including those devoted to the adventures of cheerleaders, nurses, teachers and female prisoners.
In an age where the image of a naked lady is only ever a single mouse click away, Nudity has never gone out of style. Whole websites exist only to document the history of unclad cinematic flesh and softcore “art” is frequently the only lucrative market available to the filmmakers who first made their names in the 80s and 90s B-Movie marketplace.
It just goes to show you that our need for art is constant and eternal and if there is a potential point of over-saturation, we’re far, far away from reaching it.
Yes, I know, M is for Monster. It doesn’t get more obvious than that, but Vanity Fear isn’t about the obvious. We’re all about the mofoin’ oblique bitches!
As important as Monsters are to B-Movies, I would argue that Music is just as important. Not only can Music turn a good B-Movie into a GREAT B-Movie (see my go-to-favourite example Halloween), but in many cases great B-Movies ONLY EXIST because of the Music they contained.
Y’see kids, there once was a time when people bought things called records. Records were collections of songs assembled together with the intention that they be listened to in the same order, each and every time! In most cases, records featured the work of ust one band or artist, which could often be boring and repetitive. It didn’t take long for smart folks to figure out that money could be made assembling records made out of random songs by different artists, but such are the rational, gotta-have-a-reason ways of this world, these folks had to think of ways to justify these random assemblages beyond the fact that they made shitloads of money.
So they made movies out of them!
Sure, they’d tell folks that they made the movies first and the records just sorta happened by accident, but we’re all grown ups.
We know the truth.
Ever seen a terrible B-Movie where the song licensing obviously cost more than the actual production (The Last American Virgin)? Ever seen a terrible B-Movie based on a dance craze that was forgotten before its first screening ended (Thank God It’s Friday)? Ever seen the greatest movie ever made that some assholes think is stupid because they’re retarded morons (The Apple)? Then you know what I’m talking about.
In some cases having too awesome a soundtrack could prove to be a double-edged sword. It is widely speculated that the reason Patrick Swayze’s “lost” classic Skatetown U.S.A. has never been officially released in ANY home video format is due to the fact that the cost to relicense songs by Earth, Wind & Fire, The Rolling Stones and The Jacksons simply makes it more expensive than the investment is worht. Of course this could be total bullshit (it’s not like other movies haven’t simply replaced expensive songs with cheaper alternatives for home video releases), but it feels true and Vanity Fear is all about the feeling, not the reality.
There’s so much to talk about when it comes to Japanese B-Movie cinema. You’ve got your samurai films (which are essentially westerns where the guys carry swords instead of six shooters), bizarre supernatural horror tales, their infamous “pink” softcore porn films, bloody gangster films, as well as their unique brand of adult-themed animation, but the truth is that we here at Vanity Fear (and by “we”, we, of course, mean me, but I’m trying to keep it all professional and shit) only really care about one kind of Japanese B-Movie:
BIG RUBBER MONSTER WRECKS SHIT!
Serious movie buffs will tell you all about how the original B&W Gojira was a serious metaphor for Hiroshima and how the never-ending flood of sequels bastardized the concept and turned it into a laughably inane children’s series.
This is why serious movie buffs are assholes.
As works of pure unfettered juvenile imagination the Godzilla series (along with such adored imitators as the giant nuclear turtle Gamera) are pretty much unmatched in the annals of world cinema. Few are good, most are terrible, but taken together they’re nothing short of brilliant. From such pretentious beginnings true B-Movie Bullsh*t bloomed, resulting in the creation of that astonishing 1962 culmination of Japanese and American culture—Kingu Kongu tai Gojira.
Though there’s no truth to the rumor that separate endings were filmed in order to allow both combatants to win in their home countries (it actually ends in a much more disappointing tie), it is true that in the sequel Kingu Kongu no gyakushû our giant ape-y hero fights a robot version of himself.
Horror author R. Chetwynd-Hayes is accosted outside a bookstore by a desperate looking man, who claims to have not eaten for weeks. The kindly author attempts to give the poor soul a few dollars, but the man refuses the offer and instead sinks his large fangs into R’s neck. Luckily for R, Eramus is a rare ethical vampire, who only takes enough blood to quench his thirst, leaving his victim both alive and human. It turns out he’s a fan of R’s work and invites him to The Monster Club, the local spot where all of the area’s vamps, werewolves and ghouls like to hang out. R agrees and stays long enough to hear 3 tales of terror, listen to some fine 80s British rock music, enjoy the performance of a very unique stripper and, finally, become the club’s latest member—an honor made possible once Eramus explains to his fellow monsters that as a human, R belongs to a species responsible for more horror than all of theirs combined. Then they all dance.
While the popularity of the horror genre is one of cinema’s few constants, the various sub-genres that make up its existence come and go as quickly as the zeitgeists that inform them. Like all fashion, there comes a moment where what was hip and stylish yesterday, now looks oddly ridiculous today, only to become retro-cool sometime in the future. Pinpointing this moment, though, is frequently very difficult. Just as there were folks still wearing bell-bottoms when skin-tight jeans were the rage, there are always going to be movie producers who insist on repeating past successes, even when they no longer resemble the kinds of movies current audiences actually want to see.
Born in New York, Milton Subotsky was a writer/producer/fanboy who eventually moved to England and formed Amicus Productions with Max Rosenthal, a fellow genre enthusiast. Today Amicus remains best known for the 7 British Horror Anthology (BHA) films it produced between 1965 and 1974, starting with Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors and ending with From Beyond the Grave. Each film consisted of several short horror stories combined together via wraparound segments whose settings ranged from the clever (From Beyond the Grave’s curio shop) to the lazy (The House That Dripped Blood’s…uh…house).
The main benefit of these productions were that they allowed Amicus to fill their films with talented actors on very low budgets, since it cost far less to hire them for only a few days, than it would for the month or so required for a regular movie. The presence of talented, charismatic actors not only elevated the material, but also made up for the fact that the short segments essentially made significant character development impossible. By casting actors such as Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Donald Pleasance, Jack Palance, Michael Ripper, Burgess Meredith, Tom Baker, Ian Oglivie, Joan Collins, Michael Gough, Donald Sutherland, Denholm Elliot, Joss Ackland, Ingrid Pitt, Terry-Thomas, Glynis Johns, Ian Hendry, Patrick Magee, Herbert Lom, Barry Morse, Charlotte Rampling, Lesley-Ann Down and David Warner, Amicus made it much easier for audiences to forgive flaws that might have doomed films with less-accomplished performers.
It also helped that the very nature of the films kept them from the potential narrative pitfalls that can affect more conventional films. If an audience member was bored by one particular segment (and each film seemed to feature at least one boring and/or unsuccessful segment) they at least knew it would end soon and be replaced by one they’d likely enjoy a lot more.
And chances were there would be at least one segment that would leave an indeliable mark on your psyche. A fun game to play with any true horror movie fan is to ask them to describe their favourite BHA moments. Personally I'd begin with a detailed description of Torture Garden's possessed piano sequence, which actually ends with the piano coming to life and attacking poor Barbara Ewing, and then go on to tell the tale of that same film's wonderful "twist" ending (turns out, Burgess Meredith is actually...well...I won't spoil it for you).
Amicus’ anthology formula proved so successful that it became easy for people to forget that they produced close to 20 more traditional films (including some hard sci-fi, several “lost world” fantasies and even a romantic comedy) and assume those were the only kind of films they made. But by 1974, when From Beyond the Grave was released, the formula began its inexorable slide into irrelevance. For all the reflected class of their talented thespians, there was always something slightly childish and goofy about the Amicus anthologies. They were cinematic versions of the kind of campfire ghost stories we told as children, and those stories no longer seemed as frightening in the wake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Horror films were now either deadly serious (The Exorcist) or disconcertingly realistic (The Last House On the Left) and anything that mixed humor with the supernatural suddenly felt childish and old-fashioned.
But old habits die hard. In 1977, Subotsky produced the Canadian co-production, The Uncanny, an anthology featuring feline-inspired horror tales and—seven years after the last official Amicus anthology hit the screens—he tried again with The Monster Club.
By 1981, movie houses were dominated by a new kind of horror, best typified by the slasher film, in which sex and violence took precedence over everything else. Compared to that same year’s An American Werewolf in London, Friday the 13th Part 2, and The Evil Dead, The Monster Club seems as dated and quaint as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Ironically, this has as much to do with its blatant attempts at relevance than it does the antiquated sensibility of its horror tales.
As if fully aware of how old-fashioned the whole project was, the filmmakers (including Hammer warhouse Roy Ward Baker, who ended his long feature film career with this effort) decided to attempt to bring it screaming into the 80s by featuring the most popular affordable musical acts of the period and have them perform their appropriately themed songs on camera. And the club itself was clearly inspired by the cantina scene in 1977’s Star Wars, the key difference being that the monster mask budget for The Monster Club was less than what it cost to manufacture C-3PO’s codpiece.
The overall effect of this attempt to “modernize” the Brit-horror anthology is that The Monster Club actual feels twice as dated as any of its predecessors. Nothing dates a movie faster than the use of “current” pop music, and the ludicrous monster effects adds a lair of camp ridiculousness that the other Amicus anthologies mostly managed to avoid.
It doesn’t help that the 3 horror tales have to rank amongst the most anemic of all the Amicus films and prove far less memorable than the club sequences that surround them. The overall effect is closer to that of a children’s film than anything else, and I’d suggest it wouldn’t even be scary enough for that audience, if I didn’t know for a fact that this wasn’t the case.
I can’t place an exact year when it occurred, but it would have to have been around 1985-1987. It was around Halloween and we were visiting my Auntie Lynne (I really wish I could be cool and identify my mom’s late sister as “my Aunt Lynne” instead, but the sound of it is so unnatural I have no choice but to use the more juvenile alternative. If you had ever been lucky enough to meet her, you'd know why) and Uncle Joe. With us was the family of Uncle Joe’s brother, including his two sons, Darren and J.P., who not only closely matched me and my brother in age, but also in interests and overall personalities.
Darren and I were the older brothers and were both bookish geeks with precocious interests in popular culture, while J.P. and my brother, Chris, were much more athletic types who considered reading more of a punishment than a recreational activity. That night we found ourselves downstairs in the basement, where the TV was, while the adults did whatever adults do. Because of the approaching holiday one of the local stations was showing a week’s worth of horror movies and that night’s selection was today’s subject.
I adored movies, but my young fertile imagination had a tendency to become inflicted by brutal nightmares whenever exposed to horrific imagery, so when The Monster Club came up during our exploration of the programming landscape, I demanded that the channel be turned ever onward. Darren, who also shared my “big pussy” sensibilities, agreed with me, but we were stymied by the fact that our younger brothers sadistically enjoyed exploiting any opportunity to torture us.
In front of us the movie played out as either Chris or J.P. (I think it was J.P.) paused with their hand on the dial and allowed it to continue. This is what we saw:
25 years later and it seems amazing that we could be disturbed by something so benign, but Darren and I both protested loudly enough to finally compel the channel to be changed. I have no idea what we ended up watching, but I’ve never forgotten that moment of The Monster Club, so I know for a fact that in at least one instance it proved to be an effective horror vehicle.
Not surprisingly, Darren and I both went on to become professional writers. Eventually we found ourselves reunited years later when we both worked for the same publisher. Ironically, we found ourselves working in the genre we were once too sensitive to endure—specifically, tales of the supernatural. He would write Werewolves & Shapeshifters, I would write Gothic Ghost Stories and together we would collaborate on Native Ghost Stories (which, for various complicated reasons, I chose to have credited under the pseudonym of Amos Gideon).
Life, as they say, is fucking weird.
And perhaps it’s the nostalgia of this memory that forces me to admit that for all of its flaws, I kinda loved The Monster Club when I finally revisited it a few days ago. In fact, if anything it’s those flaws that I find so endearing. It’s a film that ultimately understands it has no right to exist, yet continues to do so anyway, defying its own irrelevance if only for the pure joy of it.
It doesn’t hurt that—as dated as they sound—the songs provided by now-forgotten Brit pop acts like Night, B.A. Robertson and The Pretty Thingsare all pretty awesome, especially The Viewers’ “Monsters Rule O.K”, which I haven’t been able to get out of my head since I first heard it. (Ironically the only band in the movie you’ve likely heard of—UB-40 of ”Red, Red Wine” fame —are regulated to being the background house band and don’t get their own moment in the spotlight.)
We also can’t ignore the presence of Vincent Price, who somehow managed to avoid being in any of the other Amicus anthologies (despite having starred in their productions of Scream and Scream Again and Madhouse), but who adds his trademark touch of amused class to the proceedings. There’s a reason why he remains my favourite all-time actor. He was that rare performer who could be both sincere and glib at the exact same time—a trait that I like to think defines the existence of this particular blogging enterprise.
Of the film’s three narrative sequences, the first—from which the clip that once so frightened me is taken—is easily the most effective. Interestingly, it and the second story both invert the traditional formula and feature monsters as the sympathetic characters. The first story goes so far as to take its cue from the old E.C. comic books (which Subotsky clearly loved, having made not one but two movies based on them—Tales From the Crypt and Vault of Horror, both of which feature early adaptations later remade for the popular HBO TV show) and features an ethically challenged protagonist, who eventually gets what’s coming to her, as its lead.
Angela (Barbara Kellerman) is engaged to George (Simon Ward), a con man looking for one last score they can use to move away and get married. In the want ads he finds the perfect mark in the form of an antiquities collector who requires an assistant to help him index his collection. Angela goes to get the job, but runs away when she sees the cold, dead face of Raven (John Laurenson), a pathetic recluse who has grown quite used to people reacting to him this way.
George convinces Angela to return and she manages to swallow her revulsion long enough to take the job, which delights the extremely lonely collector. It’s clear that Raven is a wounded, sensitive soul, who counts the pigeons he feeds as his only friends. What Angela does not know is that he is a Shadmock, a creature whose status as the lowest creature in the monster hierarchy doesn’t stop them from being the most feared and dangerous. For all his meekness, Raven can wreck untold damage merely by deciding to whistle at the object of his displeasure.
Raven, unused to being in the presence of a beautiful woman, quickly falls in love with Angela and proposes marriage. She agrees, but only as a pretense to carry out her and George’s scheme. During their engagement party (where all of his monstrous family members disguise themselves with masks) she breaks away from their dancing and is caught by Raven as she attempts to empty his safe. He tells her that she can have his money and everything else he owns, so long as she stays with him and loves him. Angela screams at the mere thought of this, which compels the wounded Raven to lash out at her the only way he can--he whistles.
For all the film’s camp, this segment’s final shot of the devastated monster sitting, weeping, on his ballroom floor while surrounded by his relatives does manage to pack an emotional punch. It’s less frightening than genuinely sad, thanks to Laurenson’s moving portrait of the misunderstood monster.
The film’s second segment is an example of one of the odder BHA traditions—the overtly comedic story. This goes all the way back to the pre-Amicus days and one of the best BHA’s, 1945’s Dead of Night, whose otherwise chilling effect (bolstered largely by the justly famous segment featuring Michael Redgrave as a ventriloquist haunted by his caustic dummy) is somewhat undone by the comic sequence in which a golfer’s game is hamstrung by the ghost of a romantic rival who committed suicide after losing the match that determined which one got to marry their mutually beloved. In the case of The Monster Club the comic sequence is especially egregious since it isn’t actually funny, which kinda goes against its only reason to exist.
Introduced as a film clip by a vampire film producer (which Price admits is somewhat redundant), the story focuses on a wimpy boy named Lintom Busotsky (William Saire) who wonders why his tuxedo-clad father sleeps all day and works only at night. His father insists he isn’t a waiter, and both of his parents warn him to never talk to strangers, especially those who carry violin cases.
One day at school, Lintom is approached by a man dressed as a priest (Donald Pleasance), who attempts to befriend him. Lintom recalls his parents’ warnings and gets away, but the next day the same man—now dressed in regular clothes and carrying a violin case—accosts him and, along with two partners, breaks into his house while his mother is out shopping and his father is asleep in the basement. Turns out the men work for the government department devoted to keeping people safe from vampires and Lintom’s father has proven to be their most elusive target.
With a great sense of accomplishment the head vampire hunter drives a stake into Lintom’s father’s heart while he and his mother watch with horror. But before he can celebrate, Lintom’s dad awakes and manages to sink his fangs into the hunter’s neck before he dies. Lintom’s mother points out to the man’s partners that the bite was deep enough to ensure that their leader is about to become a vampire himself. He protests, but his long fangs prove she’s right and his partner’s have no choice but to stake him right then and there.
Fortunately for the Busotsky’s, Lintom’s father was only pretending to be dead. Fearful of such an unwanted intrusion ever happening, he took the precaution of wearing a stake-proof vest (along with a ketchup packet over his heart to achieve the proper bloody effect). And at that point everyone watching can be heard to groan, “Are you fucking kidding me?”
I suspect I’m being a bit too hard on this sequence. It’s a light, innocent piece of fluff, but there’s simply no "there" there to justify its inclusion. We know right from the beginning that Lintom’s father is a vampire, because the vampire producer who introduces it tells us that its based on his childhood, so the only twist is that there is no twist, apart from the hunter being the true villain of the piece. That said, if you rearrange the letters of Lintom Busotsky, you get Milton Subotsky, which I suspect explains everything about why this particular story made it into the final script.
This now brings us to what is probably the film’s most famous sequence, which occurs between the second and third stories. While Night performs their big hit (I’m guessing, I’d never actually heard it before) “The Stripper”, the camera focuses on an attractive, blond exotic dancer (Suzanna Willis) who goes that extra mile during her performance:
It’s a fun moment, achieved by some great animation, but it does seem to feel somewhat at odds with the childish tone of the rest of the film, which suggests that the retro-innocence of the film is more the result of the filmmakers’ outdated view of what constituted proper cinematic horror than a deliberate attempt to appeal to young viewers.
For fans of BHA, the film’s third sequence is easily the most typical of the genre. It starts out VERY promisingly with a shot of a buxom gothic beauty walking down a flight of stairs with a candelabra in her hand, as the light from the above doorway allows us to catch glimpses of what is occurring beneath her diaphanous gown. But before we can get too excited, it turns out we are on a film set. Sam (Stuart Whitman), is the film’s director and he is insistent that his latest production requires the realism of a proper out-of-the-way English village for the affect he’s wants to achieve.
To that end he decides to drive to just such a village and determine if it has the look he’s aiming for. He doesn’t seem to notice the thick cloud of strange fog that separates the village from the outside world, but soon realizes he should have when he finds out that it’s populated by flesh-eating ghouls, who—he soon learns—are supported by powerful outside authorities.
While not quite as disappointing as the second story, the third lacks both a sympathetic protagonist and a compelling villain, meaning we ultimately feel nothing when the director’s escape turns out to be futile, as we don’t care who wins this battle either way.
Thankfully, the film still manages to end on a high note when Eramus asks the club’s secretary (a werewolf) to admit his author guest as a permanent member. The secretary informs him that they couldn’t possibly allow a human to become a member of The Monster Club, but Eramus eloquently convinces him otherwise in a moving speech that argues that humans are really the worse monsters of all.
It’s a great moment, made even greater by its being followed by Price and Carradine dancing together while The Pretty Things play “(Welcome to) The Monster Club”, which is really as sublime a moment as any BHA fan can ever hope to expect.
So, yeah, on an objective level The Monster Club is definitely a dated failure—a film whose tone and relevance would have been questionable even a decade before it was made—but on a purely subjective level, it’s a delight and proof that what once could so easily terrify me as a child is pretty much my main reason for living today.
Rip (no last name given, no last name NEEDED) is the heavyweight champion of the World Wrestling Federation and a thorn in the side of Brell, the sociopathic network president of WTN. Unable to convince Rip to jump to his channel through bribery or violence, Brell decides to make a star out of Zeus, a demented ex-con behemoth who quickly becomes a national sensation fighting in anything goes “No Holds Barred” matches. Rip succumbs to Zeus’ taunts for a match when he cripples Rip’s beloved younger brother, Randy. The night of the big match, Brell kidnap’s Rip’s girlfriend, Samantha, and orders him to give Zeus a good ten minutes before throwing the match. For a time it seems like Rip won’t have to throw anything, but when he sees that Samantha is safe, he finds the inner-strength he needs to defeat his opponent and ensure that Brell never hurts anyone else ever again.
Like most children of the 80s, I fully embraced the lovably theatrical world of professional wrestling. With their inhuman bodies and high-flying acrobatics, professional wrestlers were the closest we ever got to watching real live superheroes in action. The best matches had a beauty, drama and grace to them that was as compelling as any movie you could name. I can still feel the pure joy I experienced when Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat finally pinned Randy “Macho Man” Savage during Wrestlemania III, after the most tense and excruciating 15-20 minutes of my life. Even though I first saw it on videotape months after it actually happened, I clapped and cheered so loudly I’m sure Steamboat must have heard me wherever he was in the world at the time.
But despite the enjoyment I derived from wrestling, I can honestly say that I never really understood the phenomena of Hulkamania. Even at a very young age I appreciated the fact that the “professional” part of “professional wrestling” was pretty much synonymous with “bullshit” and therefore enjoyed watching the wrestlers who I thought told the best stories in the ring and made it seem almost-kinda legitimate. For all of his enormous popularity, Hulk Hogan was clearly not one of these wrestlers. While many of my peers marveled at the size of his “pythons” I couldn’t help but notice how slow he was, how few moves he seemed to have and how predictably tedious it was whenever he came back from the brink of defeat by feeding on the cheers of the crowd.
It didn’t hurt that as the smallest boy in each and every one of my classes, I was naturally inclined to be suspicious of those whose only claim to fame was that they were bigger and stronger than everyone else was. Hulk Hogan clearly benefited from the phenomenon that causes most young kids to assume a nickel is worth more than a dime, because it seems ridiculous that the smaller coin could ever be the more valuable of the two. I, however, knew bigger did not mean better and therefore had little time for those wrestlers who brought nothing else but bulk to the table (although that didn't stop me from loudly cheering for Andre the Giant that same night I cheered for Ricky Steamboat).
I’d like to say that by 13 I had grown too old for all of this, but that would be a ginormous lie. I was still a faithful fan when the Hulkster’s leading man debut was released to theaters (hell, I even occasionally bought the fucking magazine), but my disdain for him kept me from seeing it. If they had released a movie starring Randy Savage, Jake Roberts or (most especially) Miss Elizabeth, I would have probably been there opening day, but I had no time for No Holds Barred, especially since even at that age I could tell that there was no way it could be anything but awful.
Twenty-two years later and my relationship with pro-wrestling is now exactly like the one I have with hardcore pornography—I find the actual product to be mind-numbingly tedious, but the industry itself endlessly fascinating. I can’t get through more than five minutes of any episode of Raw, Smackdown or Impact, but I still enjoy reading the behind the scenes stories about the men and women who made wrestling famous and those who continue on the tradition today.
For this reason I decided it was time to check out Hogan’s famous folly, a film supposedly so terrible that it somehow tarnishes the filmography of the man who starred in Mr. Nanny, Santa With Muscles and Three Ninjas III. Before I even pressed play on my AppleTV remote, I knew I was in for some serious pain, but I never would have dreamed what I would feel when it was over and the end credits began to roll.
Now before you assume I’m writing this while trying to fatally overdose on crazy pills, please understand that I never for once thought that No Holds Barred was a good movie, but instead that I quickly realized that what I was watching wasn’t terrible as a result of filmmaking incompetence, but instead the result of a phenomena I myself know only too well.
There were two groups of people on the set of this film when it was made. The first group consisted of Hogan, producer Vince McMahon and—I’m guessing—leading lady Joan Severance. They believed they were making a real movie—one that would entertain and excite a large mainstream audience. The second group consisted of everyone else who worked on the picture, including director Thomas J. Wright, (the unfortunately named) screenwriter Dennis Hackin, and—especially—co-star Kurt Fuller, who played the part of Rip’s evil network president antagonist.
The folks in the second group did not share the first group’s delusions of grandeur. They knew full well that they were trapped in the middle of a ridiculous vanity project that had no hope of being anything approaching good, so they all said a collective “Fuck it!” and decided that if it was going to fail, it might as well fail on their own spectacular terms.
I came to this conclusion when I finally realized why the film felt so familiar. There was something about its tone that felt so oddly recognizable. It was only a few minutes after Hogan’s character so completely terrified a potential kidnapper that he literally shit his pants that I realized I was watching the greatest film Lloyd Kaufman never made.
As the co-owner of Troma Studios, Kaufman is responsible for such films as The Toxic Avenger, Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD, Tromeo & Juliet, Terror Firmer and Poultrygeist. His films are (in)famous for reveling in bad taste, but in such a way that feels deliberate and—almost—artful. There’s a rebellious quality to his nudity, violence and scatological jokes—each film serving as a cinematic middle finger to what he sees as mainstream Hollywood’s embrace of mediocrity in favor of originality. “You want terrible?” he asks. “I’ll fucking give you terrible.”
As bizarre as it may sound, I finished watching No Holds Barred convinced that it was made with this same attitude in mind. And I completely understood why.
I’ve written before that few, if any, artists, whatever their medium, take on a project expecting it to fail, but it doesn’t take long for the signposts of failure to become impossible to ignore. And once you’ve seen enough of them, you have two choices—succumb or rebel. Succumbing means biting a bullet and creating something that you know is shitty and nothing else; rebelling means becoming subversive and creating something that’s still shitty, but on your own terms and not in the way the people paying your paychecks expected.
Whether it’s an artist who plants a subliminal penis in a Disney movie poster or an author who writes a ghost story called “A Boy and His Instrument” in a book called Haunted Schools that’s all about masturbation if you read it correctly (hey, that was me!), these acts of rebellion often go unnoticed by even the most perceptive of audience members, who simply assume that the artists lacked talent and nothing more. But we brave few who have been in these situations ourselves know deliberate, subversive shittyness when we see it and have no choice but to salute and admire it when we do.
It definitely helps my case that the film bears little relation to those found in Group Two’s various filmographies. Although Wright only got the chance to direct one other feature, he’s still managed to amass an admirable amount of credits directing some of the best (The X-Files, Angel and Firefly) and most popular (C.S.I. and N.C.I.S.) episodic shows found on television. Hackin began his career with the critically acclaimed Clint Eastwood comedy Bronco Billy and Fuller remains one of the funniest character actors working today (his crowning achievement being his role in The Tick, where he played Destroyo, a genocidal supervillain whose hatred for mankind derived from the cruel taunts of “Dance, Fatboy, dance!” he received when he was an overweight ballet prodigy. I still quote the line he delivers to Liz Vassey’s Captain Liberty—“You’re not needy, you’re wanty. There’s a difference!”—whenever I can get away with it).
This is not your standard collection of deluded, untalented assholes. These are skilled professionals who found themselves caught in an absurd situation and decided to not go gently into that good night in order to deal with it.
The question then is how did Group Two manage to make a movie that was deliberately and subversively hilarious without Group One noticing?
To answer this, I’m going to go back to the connection I made between wrestling and hardcore pornography a few paragraphs back by looking at two films that were doomed in their conception due to the inability of their directors to appreciate how much their perspectives had been shifted by their previous work.
Starring Clint Howard as the serial killing title character, 1995s Ice Cream Man sets itself apart by being a violent, r-rated, nudity-filled slasher movie whose reliance on pre-pubescent protagonists makes it feel like the most socially irresponsible kids movie of all time. Too violent and profane for its target audience and too juvenile for adults, it was a film that could have only been made by someone whose sense of what was and was not appropriate had been lost a long time ago.
Norman Apstein was just such a someone. Before making Ice Cream Man, he had—as Paul Norman—directed over 120 hardcore adult movies, including Edward Penishands (in which Tim Burton’s famed romantic hero was reimagined as dude with penises where his hands should be) and Cyrano (in which Edmond Rostand’s famed romantic hero was reimagined as a dude with a penis where his nose should be--sense a theme here?).
Having spent so much of his life focusing his frame on the most intimate of human acts (and putting penises where other body parts should be), Apstein had lost all sense of what did and did not work in the context of a mainstream film.
The same thing happened to Shaun Costello, another hardcore filmmaker, who in 1977 attempted to break into the mainstream big time with Water Power. Intended to be a gritty crime drama, Costello crucially misunderstand the limits of mainstream tolerance by making his villain an obsessed rapist who kidnaps women in order to give them enemas, which Costello showed in close-up pornographic detail. Rather than be hailed as a breakthrough in crime cinema, it was retitled The Enema Bandit and played in exactly the kind of grindhouse porn houses Costello wanted to break away from.
In the case of No Holds Barred, I believe the members of Group One were too immersed in the world of professional wrestling to see how inappropriately it translated into the medium of long-form narrative filmmaking.
Anyone who has spent more than 10 minutes watching anything the WWF produced in the 80s, can appreciate how Hogan and McMahon would have developed this blind spot. They worked on a spectacle designed to appeal to the folks in the cheap seats, who did not demand—and thus were not given—anything approaching subtlety. Pro-wrestling during the Reagan era was a time of black & white and good & evil. The babyfaces were brave, virtuous men who said their prayers, ate their vitamins and loved America, while the heels were capricious cowards who lied and cheated and—worst of all—saluted the communist flag.
You can only produce this kind of entertainment for so long before you either a) buy into it wholeheartedly or b) become so innately cynical that you lose all sense of perspective of what is and is not appropriate. I can’t say for sure which applied to Hogan or McMahon, but if I had to guess it was probably a combination of both.
The reason why people my age loved the WWF in the 80s was because it was squarely aimed at 10 year-old audiences at the exact moment when we were 10 years old. This was a departure from previous decades, where wrestling was considered a largely adult entertainment—boxing with a bit more flair and drama. Yet this change in direction did not drive adults away. If anything wrestling reached its highest peak of mass popularity during this period (Hogan forever supplanting Gorgeous George in the public’s consciousness).
You could be generous and say that the WWF’s 80s product reflected the innocence and simplicity of the era, or you could say that it was adored by morons who wouldn’t know quality entertainment if it set its testicles directly upon their faces (Tea Party reference totally intended). To be fair the exact same thing could be said about the majority of low-budget action movies produced during that time (see, for example, Invasion U.S.A.). I think in order to successfully produce this kind of product you really have to believe in it and disdain it at the same time.
While it is popular for artists to suggest that they are no different than the audiences they work so hard to entertain, I think most know in their hearts that this is bullshit. The difference between creating and consuming product is that the creator has no choice but to be aware of everything that goes into the process required to make the art happen. At the time No Holds Barred was produced the wrestling industry still practiced the tradition of kayfabe—keeping up the pretense of wrestling’s reality into everyday life so as not to betray its essential artifice. That’s why the industry’s slang word for fans was the exact same one con men use for their victims—mark, a term synonymous with “sucker”.
(Kayfabe, more than anything else, is the most fascinating part of wrestling’s history. Imagine if Laurence Olivier had to pretend he was a Danish prince every time he went to a town and played Hamlet. Or if Joan Collins and Linda Evans had to catfight in a water fountain whenever they were spotted somewhere off the set of Dynasty. The only real Hollywood equivalent would be all of the gay and lesbian performers who have pretended to be happily married heterosexuals over the years.)
McMahon and Hogan clearly made a film they thought the “marks” would love, demanding that it be filled with the same black and white moral dramatics that made them so rich to begin with. Hogan’s “Rip” character had to be virtuous to the point of audacity—proclaiming that he was far more interested in charity than self-promotion, gentlemanly setting up a privacy curtain when circumstances force him to share a one-bedroom hotel room with one of the most gorgeous women in the universe, and heroically spending all of his time rehabilitating his injured brother instead of training for the most dangerous match of his life.
At the same time his opponents are as venal and mindlessly evil as any ever seen onscreen. Made just a year after Ted Turner bought Atlanta’s NWA promotion with the intention of turning it into the nationally televised WCW (and thus become the first non-regional competition that the WWF faced in years), it doesn’t seem like an accident that the main villain is a network president with the moral compass of a dung beetle. That said, Brell bears no signs of Turner’s distinctive manner or personality. I’d say this was to avoid a potential libel suit, but I remember a few years after No Holds Barred was released McMahon aired a series of skits featuring a Turner clone behaving like a redneck buffoon, so it’s not like he wasn’t afraid to go there.
Even more hilarious is Zeus, who plays the same role Clubber Lang and Ivan Drago did in Rocky III & IV, but without any of their depth, subtlety or nuance. Tommy (“Tiny” to his friends) Lister’s performance is so perversely over the top that it takes on a kind of absurdist genius. With his crossed eyes, tatooed head, and penchant for uncomfortable metallic clothing, he actually seems too over the top even for wrestling, which turned out to be true when the character was unsuccessfully transplanted into the real WWF to promote the movie (it didn’t help that Lister had no professional wrestling experience and managed to be even clumsier in the ring than Hogan). Amazingly, out of all the performers in the film, he’s probably had the most consistently successful career, having not only worked non-stop since his appearance in No Holds Barred, but also making his mark in high-profile productions like The Fifth Element, Jackie Brown and The Dark Knight.
That said, the bad guys are at least given the chance to develop actual onscreen presences, which cannot also be said for Rip’s friends. The brother who inspires him to win all of his matches is just a handsome blond guy with a goofy 80s haircut (who would, funnily enough, go on to become Jacob, Lost’s mysterious protector of the golden spring). His trainer is just an old black dude and at least two of the other people who hang with him are never even introduced onscreen.
The film’s only other character with a personality is Sam (short for Samantha, which just boggles Rip’s mind), Rip’s new business manager who has to work harder at her job than a man would because she looks just like Joan Severance and everyone within a hundred mile radius wants to have crazy-hot-monkey-sex with her. There’s no doubt that Severance is astonishingly attractive, but in such a way that detracts rather than adds to her credibility. She’s one of those actresses who is simply too good-looking, since it becomes impossible to imagine her in any other role than that of model or actress. It doesn’t help that she’s precisely the kind of limited performer required to make sure that Hogan doesn’t get wiped off the screen.
As I’ve already said, there are two films at play here, although sometimes the lines do seem to cross. The film’s bizarre penchant for scatological or inappropriately sexual jokes(turns out the bed’s noisily jiggling is the result of Rip exercising, not furiously masturbating) has a direct connection to similar material that has shown up on McMahon’s wrestling shows over the years, but at the same time they are taken to such perversely extreme levels that they extend beyond the realms of mere bad taste to that of deliberate transgression.
This is most evident in the moments Hogan and McMahon obviously did not intend to be funny. I’ve complained in the past of films that were so badly made that they transformed into inadvertent self-parody, but in the case of No Holds Barred I am certain this is only half the case. Hogan and Severance are clearly sincere, but everyone else around them is just as clearly cognizant of how ridiculous the whole enterprise is and they show it.
For someone like me the result is fascinating, but for the average wrestling fan for which it was intended it was clearly bewildering. For most people deliberately shitty is still just shitty and a waste of time and money, which explains why the filmmakers’ efforts here went almost completely unnoticed.
I say “almost”, because I know the film has at least one acolyte out there. Back when I was 19, I was in my second year of university (the last that would actually count, as my third and final year was pretty much a write off) and taking a film studies course that examined the auteur theory by looking at the films of Dreyer, Bresson, Fuller and Kurosawa (among others I may have forgotten). Among the students was another young man, whose name has been lost to time. He suffered from Down syndrome and was there as part of a program that allowed those with special disabilities to enjoy the university experience. It was a noble idea to be sure, but in practice it meant we all had to listen to his loud snoring after one of the boring foreign films or lectures inevitably put him to sleep.
Near the end of the year, he finally lost his patience during a lecture and threw up his hand. Professor Beard (who would go on to write The Artist as Monster, an excellent analysis of the films of David Cronenberg) asked him what his question was and it became clear that he had spent all of this time in class waiting for the subject of his favourite film to finally be discussed and he could no longer wait for this to happen organically.
With the floor now his he proceeded to describe in detail the climatic match between Rip and Zeus. Everyone listened patiently and it was only when it became painfully clear that he wasn’t about to stop that Professor Beard interrupted him and explained that he couldn’t answer the “question” because he hadn’t seen the film.
In retrospect, I wish he had. I would have vastly preferred to debate the symbolism of Rip’s “Rip ‘Em” T-Shirt than hear another word about Diary of a Country Priest ever again.
Of course, the greatest irony of the film is that five years after the failure of No Holds Barred, Hogan did what Rip would not and jumped over to Turner's WCW following the promise of a bigger paycheck. As the innocence of the 80s turned into the cynicism of the 90s, Hogan eventually abandoned his babyface image and became Hollywood Hogan, the leader of the renegade N.W.O. He would eventually return to McMahon's company, but by that point he was purely a nostalgia act. Though he would gain fame as a reality tv star, his film debut clearly represented his jump the shark moment. No Holds Barred was supposed to be proof that he was more than a mountain of muscle, but it ended up being proof that he was little else. The lesson being that it's better to be the biggest of all fish in a disrespected pond than the asshole who's crying while everyone else is trying not to laugh out loud.
Athanael earns his living as a trumpeter for the Paradise Coffee Program; a radio hour of soothing lullabies intended to help listeners go to sleep. It turns out the programming works only too well, as he falls asleep on the job and dreams that he’s an angel in Heaven’s celestial orchestra. Thanks to the machinations of his lovely harpist friend Elizabeth he’s called out of the orchestra to help The Chief in charge of Small Planets to aid in the destruction of a small, unimportant orb called Earth. To do this Athanael must blow his trumpet at precisely midnight; a seemingly simple task turned awry through a combination of inadvertent human intervention and the deliberate interference of two fallen angels who know that once their life on Earth ends, their stay “Down There” begins. Much amusing mayhem ensues until our hero finally wakes up and gets his chance to really toot his own horn.
One of the strangest aspects of the artistic world is the way in which certain works attain a reputation for failure that often has nothing to do with their actual quality. Most often this happens to projects with famously tumultuous creative processes that upon their release do little to justify the heroic effort and expense required for their creation. Ishtar and Waterworld are two very famous examples of this. Since their release the titles for both films have become quick and easy shorthand punch lines available to anyone who wants to make a joke about an obvious financial fiasco.
Yet when either film is discussed amongst people who have actually seen them, more often than not someone will express the opinion that neither film is as bad as their reputation suggests. “Actually, Ishtar is pretty funny,” someone will say, while another will point out, “Y’know once you factor in worldwide gross, Waterworld turned a profit.”
As is so often the case, perception has little to do with reality—the punch line mattering more than the truth. Nowhere is this more apparent than with a now-forgotten B-Movie (from back when the term described the shorter, less-expensive second feature of a 4-hour movie program and not the kind of exploitation fare people associate it with today) that—thanks to its star—was once famous for being one of the worst movies ever made, despite the fact that the handful of people who actually did see it had to admit that it was actually pretty good.
As time marches on, people talk less and less about Jack Benny. Once one of the most popular comedians of his time, his work garners less attention that it deserves these days for a handful of reasons. The first is that his greatest triumph came in radio, a medium many no longer have any interest in. The second is that having died in 1974; he didn’t live long enough to earn the fourth act career resurgence enjoyed by his best friend George Burns (a fourth act that was spurred on by Burns Oscar-winning performance in The Sunshine Boys in a role originally offered to Benny, but given to Burns after his friend’s unexpected death). And the third is that the key to Benny’s success as a comedian had been his ability to develop one of the most recognizable characters in radio and television history. Anyone who encounters Benny’s comedy today will likely be lost if they come to it without knowing of the famous quirks he and his writers spent decades nurturing.
In fact the character of “Jack Benny” is a major reason why his film career never took off like it should have. Having so perfectly established his famous persona on radio (and later on television), people had difficulty accepting him in other roles. Even when he appeared in a controversial masterpiece like 1942’s To Be or Not To Be, his audience made it clear that they preferred it when he played “himself.”
Of course the irony is that the character of “Jack Benny” bore little resemblance to the man who shared his name. Rather than having been developed fully formed, “Jack Benny” was instead the culmination of whatever jokes had gotten the biggest laughs during the course of his career. When, early on, another character suggested Benny was cheap and it got a laugh, Benny and his writers took note and escalated his penny-pinching ways until he was one of the cheapest men in the world. Somone whose personal vault was guarded by alligators and who could earn one of the longest laughs in radio history merely by having a criminal threaten him with, “Your money or your life.”
So it was with The Horn Blows At Midnight. At the time of its release the film had been a mild B.O. and critical disappointment, but in the hands of Benny and his writers, it soon became the hugest debacle in cinema history—the worst film ever made. Whenever a guest appeared on his show who had suffered a public personal embarassment, Benny would soothe them by reminding them that he had starred in The Horn Blows At Midnight and the guest would concede that was far worse than what they experienced.
Since so few people had actually seen the film, Benny’s mockery of it was taken at face value and everyone assumed it had to be as terrible as he suggested. But as is so often the case, this perception had little to do with reality and those who had seen it could be heard to protest that it wasn’t anywhere as bad as people claimed. Having just watched it myself, I can report that this is the case. In fact, far from being a disaster, The Horn Blows At Midnight is actually a very entertaining light-weight comedy that had me laughing out loud several times during its brief 78-minute running time. What few faults it does have I suspect are more the result of interference from the censoring Hays Office than any outright artistic error on the part of its filmmakers.
While many of those who worked during that period have been known to suggest that the edicts of the Motion Picture Production Code (Hollywood’s self-appointed censorship body which was better known as the Hays Code after the former Postmaster-General, Will Hays, who was chosen by the studios to organize it) forced filmmakers to be cleverer than they would have been without it, I’ve always felt it ultimately did more harm than good. The Horn Blows At Midnight offers a good example of this with a very interesting premise that is neutered by its “Only a dream” narrative and inability to actually name the biggest danger the hero faces (the word “Hell” being verboten by name if not concept).
The most fascinating aspect of the film is that it is one in which the protagonist’s goal is the destruction of our planet—“…A six day job…” that has ignored all of the obvious signs its Heavenly lords have thrown its way and “…gotten completely out of hand.”
Unfortunately the chutzpah of this is significant lessened by the film’s main action taking place in a consequence-free dream. Without the Wizard of Oz-esque wraparound segments (as in Oz all of the characters in Athanael’s dream have real world counterparts) the film would have forced us to truly question where to place our loyalties. Do we cheer on Athanael in his quest to destroy our world merely because he’s a likable protagonist we can identify with or do we cheer for the villainous cads who are out to stop him purely for their own selfish needs, even though their interests are ultimately our own?
Today filmmakers would have the freedom to play with this concept however they wished, but in 1945 audiences were saved from such uncomfortable moral ambiguities. This is especially apparent in the film’s climax where Athanael is awaken from his dream just when he’s supposed to blow his horn. Even in a dream we are not allowed to see him succeed in blowing up the world, which not only leaves the viewer who spent the film cheering for him feeling unsatisfied but also leaves the film’s overall theme as something of a dangling question mark.
Still, for all they couldn’t get away with, director Raoul Walsh (White Heat and The Roaring Twenties) and screenwriters Sam Hellman and James V. Kern do manage to get some amusingly cynical licks in. The world Athanael sets out to destroy is one filled with some really lousy people, typified by Reginald Gardiner’s charismatic thief who can barely be bothered to ask, “What stopped you?” when a spurned lover admits his rejection caused her to try to jump off a hotel’s roof the night before.
That said, there are some benefits to the dream narrative. Mostly in how it allows us to forgive the film’s frequent lapses in logic (Apparently Heaven and New York are in the same time zone) and focus on the most charming aspect of the film, the nascent romance between Athanael and Elizabeth.
Benny does great work in the film, but the performance I found myself focusing on was Alexis Smith’s. Based on the IMDb she’s one of those actors who I have seen many times before, but never actually noticed until a specific role caught my eye. She’s great here—the perfect love interest and not just because her heavenly robes were clearly tailored to flatter her admirable figure. More than anyone, she’s responsible for us siding with Athanael as he valiantly attempts to destroy our world, because he’s clearly doing it to impress her and we want her to be impressed.
But as much as I enjoyed the romantic aspect of the picture, the parts I’m most likely to remember are the wild slapstick set pieces that build on the film’s dream logic and allow it to achieve a true cartoon reality. This is most evident in the film’s climax which finds Athanael, along with his allies and foes, on the edge of the hotel’s rooftop attempting to claim the trumpet before midnight. It all comes to a head in the kind of massive advertising creations that do not exist anymore and—I suspect—never really existed to that degree even then.
So the message of The Horn Blows At Midnight is that you should never base your judgment of a movie based solely on its reputation alone. Too often such reputations have little to do with the actual quality of a work, but instead outside factors that have absolutely nothing to do with the enjoyment you feel while watching them.
When I usually begin thinking about getting a jump on the latest week's Wynorski entry. 'Thinking' being the key word, since despite all my best intentions I almost inevitably end up watching the required movie at the last minute, forcing myself to come up with stuff to say about it just before I have to go to bed that Sunday night.
This week would have ended up being no different, were it not for the fact that I just remembered how fully booked I'm going to be Saturday and Sunday (I'm attending a local advertising industry awards show on the first night and seeing The Pixies perform Doolittle in its entirety on the second) and realized there's no way I'm going to find the time to watch a terrible soft-core sex movie starring Tanya Roberts and be able to write cogently about it (especially since I plan on being especially hungover on Sunday morning).
Were I a more ambitious and devoted blogger, I would attempt to correct this by writing the promised post now, but we all know that's not happening, so let's not kid ourselves. So, instead, I thought this week we might take a look at some of the reviews I've written recently for Flick Attack. Now I realize that allofyou are already devoted Flick Attackers and dutifully visit the site each and every day, so this is probably a wasted effort on my part, but it beats producing original content, so what the hey.
WTF Musical Division:
Times Square: Two teenage girls almost become lesbians, but then don't. Instead they enjoy charming hijinx on the mean streets while radio DJ Tim Curry makes them famous. I truly and deeply love this movie.
Sextette: A bizarre hate crime of a movie in which a group of filmmakers decided to cruelly indulge the pathetic whims of a senile old woman. Truly one of the most frightening films I have ever seen.
Saturday the 14th Strikes Back: While some may say that one musical number does not a musical make, I say it does when it's the only thing I actually remember happening in the movie.
Can't Stop the Music: I can honestly claim I have seen this Village People musical more times than I've seen Citizen Kane and I've seen Citizen Kane many, many times. True to the general tenor of my Flick Attack reviews, the central focus here is on Valerie Perrine's then ubiquitous boobies.
Remakes and Variations:
The Legend of the Lone Ranger: This forgotten flop proves that not every disaster gets to live on in "So-Bad-It's-Good" movie purgatory. I actually found it to be kinda charming, but then that may have been the nostalgia talking.
I Spit On Your Grave: I've never been shy about proclaiming my appreciation of Meir Zarchi's misunderstood masterwork, so you'd think I'd resent someone making a blatant cash grab by exploiting its infamy for a cheap Saw-inspired remake. Turns out, you'd have thought wrong.
Chained Heat: "But Allan," I imagine you proclaiming in a very high-pitched and annoying voice, so irritating it just really makes me want to--no offense--punch you right in the face, "Chained Heat wasn't a remake!" I never said it was (asshole!), but if you click the link and read the review you'll see how I noted its simularities to a much more respected prison saga that features several similar characters and a distinct absence of bras.
So Fine: Few people seem to remember this early 80s Ryan O'Neal comedy about a college professor who invents jeans with a see-through ass and bones Richard Kiel's hot Italian wife, which is a shame since it's pretty damn funny.
S.O.B.: Blake Edwards clearly thought there was money to be made exposing his wife's (Julie Andrews!) 46 year-old breasts on the big screen, so he wrote and directed an entire movie devoted to doing exactly that. It's why he's in heaven now, throwing pennies down onto Peter Sellers' head.
Happy Hour: From the mind behind the klassic Killer Tomato franchise, here's a comedy that stars Rich Little, Jamie Farr, Eddie Deezen and Tawny Kitaen that is actually pretty damn funny and worth seeking out.
Three That Start With 'B':
BMX Bandits: I can't decide which is cuter: 15 year-old Nicole Kidman or Australians pretending to make real movies like the grown-up countries do.
Breeders: This is a movie featuring a scene where a group of skanky 80s "actresses" are shown bathing in a pool filled with gooey alien semen, yet I still can't recommend it. Sometimes I even surprise myself.
Bitch Slap: I make some pretty big statements in this review and I stand by every single one of them. The greatest movie of all time? Probably not. The greatest test of strength the crotch of my pants has ever received? Definitely.
Five famous “Scream Queens” (Brinke Stevens, Michelle Bauer, Roxanne Kernohan, Monique Gabrielle and Kelli Maroney) are invited to the home of Count Byron Orlock to attend a seminar on" How to Make A Good Horror Film." But when they get there, they find the house is empty and decide to pass the time by stripping down into nighties, consulting an Ouija board and then getting into a very small hot tub. While they sit crammed together they discuss the lectures they planned on giving had the seminar actually occurred. Then they take their tops off and lather each other up with soap. (Archival footage) blood is shed, breasts are bared (more often than they are covered), stuff explodes (once again thanks to the archival footage) and the film doesn’t so much as end than run out of video tape.
From a critical standpoint there’s really not a lot to say about Scream Queen Hot Tub Party. The title pretty much says it all. There are Scream Queens. They get into a hot tub. And they proceed to party. Run credits. In a way it’s an even more reduced version of the already bare bones Sorority House Massacre II and Hard to Die, stripping away all notions of character and plot and simply providing the nudity and lame jokes.
Running just 46 minutes, minus the credits, half of its running time is taken up by clips from other movies, meaning it only features about 20+ minutes of original material, the majority of which features its cast in a visually pleasing state of undress. Because of this you would think it would be a relatively easy film to sit through, especially if you fast forward past the scenes from movies you’ve already watched, but the truth is SQHTP is interminable and proves that gorgeous nude bodies alone are an important b-movie side-dish, but virtually impossible to digest as the main course.
And this is not a lightly made statement. SQHTP features five of the hottest b-movie actresses of the 80s and 90s, all of them at the peak of their physical attractiveness, yet the effort is an embarrassing, unwatchable mess that perfectly illustrates the point that it is actually possible for a filmmaker to aim for the Lowest Common Denominator and still manage to miss the target.
According to the commentary track (yes, SQHTP has a commentary track) the project originated when Wynorski and his cinematic doppleganger, Fred Olen Ray, got together for dinner and Wynorski proposed they do a film that eschewed a plot and consisted of nothing more than “Scream Queens” doing striptease routines. It was Ray, inspired by a classic Eddie Murphy SNL bit, who added the hot tub angle. The whole thing was shot on video in the course of one long Saturday. Within 15 years, this kind of production would represent the bulk of both of their careers.
That the film actually proved quite successful when it was released on home video speaks volumes about the affection b-movies fans of that era had for these actresses. With the exception of the previously reticent Maroney, it required no effort at the time to see any of these performers naked, so that alone doesn't fully explain its apparent appeal.
In fact, during this period Michelle Bauer’s name in the credits was a virtual nudity guarantee, as she was frequently cast for no other reason than to remove her top. Probably the most egregious example of this being David DeCoteau’s Deadly Embrace in which she is credited as the “Female Spirit of Sex”—a role that consisted entirely of shots of her staring into the camera while caressing her naked body, which were then intercut with the film’s abundant sex scenes simply in order to pad its minimal running time.
What this means is that SQHTP is a film that exists only to showcase several attractive bodies that were often harder to find clothed than otherwise. So, yeah, it’s pointless and I’m clearly struggling to come up with anything more to say about it.
Last week I discussed my belief that by completely stripping his films of any discernable subtext, Wynorski ended up producing works that are ultimately guilty of every criticism (usually unfairly) thrown at the slasher genre. For all his humorous riffing, the results are every bit as misogynist and misanthropic as most ignorant people incorrectly believe horror films to be.
What I didn’t say is that despite (or—more accurately—because of) this the two films are compulsively and irresistibly watchable. As disdainful as Wynorski seems to be of his audience, there’s no denying that he’s giving them massive heaps of what they want. The overt sexuality of the films goes beyond mere prurience to pornographic excess, but the quality of that excess is such that it’s very hard to look away. Wynorski clearly knows this. ‘Give ‘em enough T&A and they’ll forgive you anything,’ being the apparent unspoken motto that defines much of his work.
But is he truly at peace with this? After watching his brief cameo in Hard to Die this becomes a legitimate question. The scene in question occurs when two detectives (who only appear in the film because they also appeared in Sorority House Massacre II and no one could be bothered to figure out how to get rid of them in the rewritten script) break in on a porno shoot to interview an adult film actress (Wynorski regular, Monique Gabrielle, who appears twice in the movie—billed first as“Carolet Girard” in the part of the porn star and then as “Lucy Burnett” for the part of a homely Chinese food delivery woman, which is very similar to her short cameo in Not of This Earth. Two years later she would play the final girl in Fred Olen Ray’s Evil Toons, which is as much a remake of SHMII as HtoD is) who used to work at the lingerie company where all the mayhem is occurring.
Playing the part of the exasperated director is Wynorski himself, who—when accused of making “pornography”—defends himself by saying “…It’s tough enough making a picture these days without making certain—shall we say— ‘concessions’ to public taste….” On the face of it, it would seem like he’s winking at his audience again. Giving them an in-joke they can chuckle over and appreciate for its self-deprecating irony, but this ignores the fact that when the movie was made in 1990 Wynorski was still a fairly anonymous Corman hack who most genre fans wouldn’t recognize in a police line-up, much less in an in-joke cameo.
This makes me wonder if maybe he cast himself as the pornographer not because a handful of Corman insiders would find it amusing, but as a form of cinematic Freudian slip. Is it possible that Wynorski really imagines himself as an artist forced to debase himself to satisfy the public’s need for sex and violence?
Probably not, but it will be interesting to see if any similar cameo’s are made in later productions where he abandons all pretense of respectability and just flat out makes softcore porn (see future reviews of The Bare Wench Project 1, 2 & 3). I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume the cameo is just a goof, but it’s the kind of goof pretentious asshole reviewers like me cannot help themselves from grasping on.
Beyond Wynorski’s cameo, though, the other interesting part about this scene is that it is clearly based on the scene in SHMII where the same two cops (the female half of whom is played by Wynorski regular Toni Naples, working under the name Karen Chorak) go to a strip club to talk to the younger sister of the girl who killed the maniac whose spirit is causing all of the mayhem back at the sorority house.
Watching as a hyper-aware genre-enthusiast, it was this scene that caused my brain to start doing backflips, because with it Wynorski manages to take SHMII and turn it from being an unrelated in-name-only sequel to Sorority House Massacre into an alternative universe sequel to Slumber Party Massacre, from which the flashback footage is taken. Having at that point already written about Slumber Party Massacre II (rather successfully—if a comment made at the 37 minute point of this YouTube video is to be believed) I was dumbfounded to see Wynorski take the character Deborah Brock had cast as a virginal member of an all-girl pop band into a slutty, fishnet clad stripper.
My first thought was of Uatu the Watcher, the big-header star of Marvel Comics What If…. series, in which popular Marvel Universe stories were upended with simple twists of fate. For example, issue #7 dealt with what would have happened if someone other than Peter Parker had been bit by that radioactive spider that fateful day. The most amusing aspect of the series was how it allowed the writers to let loose with their wildest apocalyptic, nihilistic fantasies, as virtually every scenario seemed to end with the destruction of the universe (thus proving that the way it “really happened” was truly meant to be).
As unintentional as this had to be on Wynorski’s part, it does force an inevitable comparison between his and Brock’s takes on the slasher genre and it’s one where he definitely does not come out on top. Whereas Brock was able to make the first slasher film that was set entirely in the pov consciousness of a young woman’s mind, Wynorski was only able to deliver a film that aims for moronic parody and fails.
More telling, though, is the profession chosen for the character in SHMII. The fact is that in a film already so full of gratuitous nudity the strip club sequence is by far the unnecessary and redundant. Knowing what I do about his previous work, I suspect both it and the rest of the police sequences were added late to the script when it became evident the original draft was too short. I’d even guess they were shot long after the film was first completed, were it not for the fact that the same scenes are all essentially replicated in Hard To Die, making this scenario highly unlikely.
Whatever the reason for the sequence, it speaks volumes about who Wynorski is as a person and filmmaker that in his universe, this character turns out to be a stripper. Brock imagined an innocent girl driven to insanity by her horrific experience, while her Corman co-hort simply saw an opportunity to add another pair of tits into the mix.
I strongly suspect that out there is an alternative universe where I prefer his take on the material over hers, but only Uatu truly knows.
Okay, so that’s it for these two flicks. Next week I’ll discuss a more serious work in the Wynorski canon that the director has gone on record as stating that he personally hates.
Two weeks ago I expressed my amazement over the sheer chutzpah of these two films. Sorority House Massacre II being a sequel that not only completely ignores the first Sorority House Massacre, but even goes so far as to us flashback footage from Slumber Party Massacre instead. Amazingly, that same footage appears again in the concurrently filmed Hard to Die, which was obviously shot with a script only slightly altered from the one used for SHMII, making it perhaps the first instant remake of an in-name-only sequel ever made.
As a result of these shenanigans, Wynorski seems to have inadvertently created his first meta-movies—making two unconsciously post-modern films that work far better as his commentary on the state of independent genre filmmaking in the 90s than they do as actual independent genre films.
In a climate where the desire for instant profitability turned the concept of what a sequel actually was essentially meaningless, it makes sense that Wynorski would prove utterly indifferent to the original SHM. If the only thing that mattered was that they shared the same title, why bother even attempting to connect them beyond that? And if flashback footage was needed to flesh out the plot (and add valuable running time) why not take it from a superior film? Why settle for less if you didn’t have to?
And by the same token, if you’re making a sequel that is essentially an original film, why not produce an alternate version that could be sold as just that? With most films feeling so interchangeable by that time, what were the chances anyone was ever even going to notice?
With these two films Wynorski is explicitly stating his belief that plot itself has no bearing or meaning in the genre universe. All that matters is you provide the proper amount of tits, ass and blood, without which SHMII and Hard to Die would cease to exist. The question then is whether or not he is indicting us for watching them or instead freeing himself from the yoke of narrative tyranny. Is it that he's pissed at his audience for being so base in their desires? Or is he thrilled by the opportunity to make movies entirely defined by the elements he himself so clearly enjoys?
The idealistic optimist in me wants to believe it’s the latter, but watching the films it becomes hard not to conclude the former. Despite his reputation as a director who just likes to surround himself with busty babes, both films clearly move beyond the veil of gentle satire into something far more brutal and unpleasant. By boiling down a genre frequently scorned for consisting only of pretty naked girls being murdered in various unpleasant ways to nothing beyond those purest elements, Wynorski removes any potentially vindicating subtext from the films, turning them into exactly the kind of films critics might deservedly condemn. Based on the legal definition of a work designed purely to arouse the prurient interest, it becomes difficult to see them as anything other than grimy softcore pornography.
And what’s wrong with that?
Absolutely nothing, so long as you have access to a shower afterwards.
Of the two films, SHMII is by far the more cynical and disturbing, thanks to an ending that serves as a direct rebuke of the cliché that most often exonerates the slasher genre from frequent accusations of misogyny.
SHMII begins with Linda (Gail Harris, a British “Page-3” model who plays the heroine in both this and Hard to Die and whose strong Yorkshire accent is never explained or justified in either film) begging an unseen force for mercy before flashing back to the moment she and her friends arrived at the location where the titular massacre will eventually occur.
With this she is clearly established as the film’s “final girl”—a designation that is supported by the fact that she is clearly the most sensible, intelligent and levelheaded member of the group (which admittedly is—at best—a negligible achievement).
Her heroics, however, are undermined by a twist presented in both films, in which the characters she plays mistake the creepy neighbor/janitor Orville Ketchum as the maniac, when its really one of her friends/co-workers possessed by the evil spirit of a dead psychopath. In both films the majority of the humour is based on Ketchum’s superhuman ability to absorb her punishment—a trait usually found in slasher stalkers, not innocent dupes.
The problem with SHMII is that following the climax where Linda manages to dispatch the true killer, there’s a coda where the police arrive at the scene of the crime and discover that she has now become possessed by the killer, which causes Ketchum to jump up from catastrophic injury once more and blow her away. He, naturally, manages to survive the hail of police gunfire that results.
On its face it's simply a semi-clever inversion of the cliché in which the seemingly unkillable killer is finally dispatched by the resourceful pretty girl, but by robbing Linda of her victory it becomes impossible to justify the sexualized carnage that came before it. I suppose the point is meant to be that there’s no good reason why the hero of a slasher film can’t be a creepy fat guy, but this is immediately undone by the simple fact that there is a very good reason why the resourceful pretty girl is almost invariably portrayed as the one who is victorious.
The only way to justify the ending is to assume that the audience should have identified with Ketchum instead of Linda in the first place. The implication being that most of the people watching the movie look far more like him than they do Harris. As true as this may be, the result is not a flattering portrait of the viewer. Instead of following the traditional mode in which the viewer firsts identifies with the killer as they dispatch a series of assholes who don’t deserve to live, then shifts their allegiance once the killer trains their focus on the virtuous good girl who represents the viewer at their best, SHMII asks us to cheer on the deaths of the hot sorority chicks, but then refuses to allow us to identify with the heroine whose actions will mitigate our initial bloodlust. By killing off Linda and leaving Ketchum alive, Wynorski leaves us unable to justify our lack of sympathy for the film’s victims, which ends the film with a disturbingly nihilistic tone.
And this in itself wouldn’t be such a big deal if Wynorski had shown any restraint in his portrayal of the female cast, but by presenting them all as brainless, sex-obsessed bimbos who spend the majority of the film running around in lingerie so ill-defined I would get banned from YouTube (again) if I featured them here in clip form, it becomes impossible to not conclude that his intentions were not merely unintentionally misogynistic, but deliberately so.
Okay, so that’s enough for this week. Next week I’ll conclude my look at these two films by exploring the alternative film universe Wynorski creates in SHMII and the potential indications of self-loathing found in his cameo as a director in Hard to Die.
Five voluptuous members of a local sorority find themselves tasked with the clean up and renovation of their new chapter house. Before they begin working they’re visited by their weird neighbor, Orville Ketchum, who tells them the story of how the house’s previous resident, a maniac named Hokstader, went nuts and murdered most of his family before finally being killed himself. After a hard night of work, the girls decide to hold a lingerie Ouija board séance and unwittingly unleash the spirit of the murderer back into their midst. By possessing the bodies of the girls he begins his killing spree anew. Blood is shed, (many) breasts are bared, nothing explodes and Orville’s the only one who doesn’t die.
Hard To Die Synopsis
Five voluptuous temp and fulltime employees of a local lingerie company find themselves tasked with performing the annual inventory. Before they begin working they’re visited by the building’s weird janitor, Orville Ketchum, who tells them about his experience with a maniac named Hokstader, who went nuts and murdered five girls before finally being killed himself. Going through the boxes they have to inventory they inadvertently open a Chinese spirit box that contains the spirit of the murderer. By possessing the body of one of the girls he begins his killing spree anew. Blood is shed, (not quite as many) breasts are bared, nothing explodes and Orville finds true love at last.
Somewhere around October of last year, I sat down and watched Sorority House Massacre II and it kind of blew my mind. Not because I thought it was an amazing piece of cinema—it’s really pretty fucking terrible—but because it played so fast and loose with the idea of what qualifies as a horror movie sequel, going so far as to not only completely ignore the first Sorority House Massacre, but to actually employ flashback footage from a completely different series that had—by that time—already been sequelized twice.
The chutzpah of this is one thing, but when you go on to consider that while making SHM II Wynorski decided to reshoot the same script with only a handful of minor character and location adjustments and release it as an “original” movie called Hard To Die (which despite it’s title and advertising bares no resemblance to Die Hard) and you quickly come to appreciate that the famously bearded director has what must be the biggest pair of balls in the known universe. Or—at the very least—a pathological inability to experience shame.
If The Return of Swamp Thingrepresents the closest approximation of what Wynorski could have accomplished if he were a more ambitious, less cynical filmmaker, than the one-two punch of SHM II and Hard To Die serve as the harbingers of the jaded, dispassionate hackmeister he would eventually become.
Despite featuring all of the hallmarks of his established oeuvre, the two films mark the first time where his poking fun at the conventions of genre filmmaking no longer seems affectionate, but instead actively derisive. Whereas once his in-jokes seemed to be made in collaboration with his audience, now they seem to come at the expense of them. If before the subtext of his humour was “Hey, isn’t this stuff cool?” here it turns into a much darker and less entertaining, “So, this is the shit you assholes want, huh? Here it is.”
That this anger comes through despite the abundant spectacle of T&A he uses to disguise it, explains why I found the experience of watching SHM II so fascinating. How could something be so simultaneously craven and transgressive? And at what point does a filmmaker abandoning all personal dignity to give his audience exactly what he thinks they want, actually become a form of hostile artistic expression—the cinematic equivalent of the infamous Baltimore stripper described by John Waters, who used to shout “What the fuck are you looking at?” to the men watching her take off her clothes.
Without a commentary to explain the decisions that went into the making of the two films I am forced to guess at the reasons behind them, which is always a dangerous thing to do, but also a large part of what I find so intellectually intriguing about such stubbornly anti-intellectual films.
It doesn’t help that the credits only add to the confusion. SHM II is credited (on the actual print, not via the IMDb) to Bob Sheridan and James B. Rogers (a protégé of the Farraly Brothers who would eventually direct American Pie II), while Hard To Die is credited to Rogers and Mark McGee despite the fact the rewrite required to differentiate the two films couldn’t have taken more than a single day to complete. Wynorski takes full directing credit on SHM II, but credits the job on Hard To Die to Arch Stanton, a pseudonym I’m assuming is a reference to the name on the grave where the gold is buried in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
What I am 100% certain about is that in 1986 Roger Corman produced a movie called Sorority House Massacre. It’s an exceptionally unexceptional slasher effort; made memorable only by how ardently it rips off the plot beats of John Carpenter’s Halloween. And it would have been very easy to use footage from the film as flashback fodder for the sequel, but that isn’t what happened. Instead, at some point the decision was made to use footage from the original Slumber Party Massacre in its place.
And it would seem that this was a decision made while the script was being written, since the backstory Orville Ketchum tells the girls in both SHM II and Hard To Die bears no relation to the story of Sorority House Massacre. It also bears no relation to the story of Slumber Party Massacre either, but that’s easily solved via editing and Ketchem’s narration. Interestingly the story he tells changes in the two movies, despite the fact that the exact same footage is shown in both films.
The biggest question this begs is, simply, why? It would seem to me that the minimal time and effort expended to incorporate the footage from SPM into SHM II could have just as easily been used to change the script enough to justify SHM II’s sequel status, rather than confuse things with scenes from another franchise. Was it a matter of authentic confusion (it’s not hard to mix up the titles of the films), outright indifference, some random legal impediment (such as one of the actors in the original film refusing to have their likeness appear in the sequel) or just a deliberate “Fuck you!” to anyone devoted enough to the genre to notice?
Whatever the reason, the end result is a film that almost becomes its own meta-commentary on the strange relationship genre fans have with horror movie franchises that often seem to exist for no other reason than to anger and disappoint them.
While the motive behind turning a project into a franchise is the same regardless of genre—capitalizing on previous success—the nature of the horror genre dramatically lowers the standard by which that previous success is judged. During the 80s and 90s, the decision to make a horror movie sequel wasn’t based on how many people it was believed actually wanted to see it, but rather by how many video cassette units it was believed the sequel could sell. Video store operators were just as guilty as audiences of preferring the recognizable to the new and were much more likely to order the latest Leprechaun sequel than something original, despite the fact that no one you ever met ever actually claimed any desire to see Leprechaun 4: In Space.
For that reason, there were many franchise films that bore absolutely no relation to each other, often because they were retitled by their distributors simply to capitalize on a marketable name. SHM II would seem to be one of those films, but it takes the added step of implying it’s actually a sequel to a completely different franchise, one that by 1990 was already three films strong. The implication being that when it came to these kinds of films, the title was meaningless, so long as it sold a videotape, which made the actual content itself only an afterthought.
The cynicism of this appears to have inspired Wynorski to make two films that would seem to exist on no other than the most base exploitation movie level—80 minutes of non-stop tits, ass and blood—but he does so in such an extreme fashion that they transcend their LCD ambitions and force the viewer to reconsider what they are watching and why they are watching it. His apparent antipathy infecting the material in such a way that it actually achieves a strange measure of relevance.
Things get even more bizarre when you realize that two years later, Wynorski’s friend and sometime-collaborator would essentially remake both SHM II and Hard To Die as Evil Toons.
But, unfortunately, it’s getting late and I have to wrap this up so I can get it formatted and posted before the day ends. Next week I shall actually discuss the content of the films, such as they are.