Jan 21, 2020

SHOCKER (1989)


It's been just under five years since Wes Craven's death and it still feels very surreal and wrong that he's gone. On that sad evening in August, the news of his death began circulating throughout the web, especially on social media, and people were sharing their surprise and dismay that the man who had created so many nightmares (literally and figuratively) for legions of moviegoers was gone. Memorials and tributes began cropping up all over the place to examine the man's legacy, his fingerprints on the horror genre, and the films he left behind.

It's a strange, strange feeling to have experienced such a loss for someone many mourners never knew personally, but yet at the same time felt like family. How is that even possible? How can a perfect stranger, who did nothing more than create a handful of boogeyman and rob us from a few nights of sleep, leave a friend- or family-sized hole behind in the wake of his death? Because, for the horror genre, he's been an ever-constant presence in our homes. It was through his sensibilities as captured on film with A Nightmare on Elm Street or The Hills Have Eyes, or any number of documentary-driven examinations on horror in which he eagerly took part, that he became so well known to us all. There was no mistaking that soft-spoken voice, that kind and somewhat shy smile, and his incredibly nuanced and levelheaded approach to the genre, and why it was important.


In the fantastic horror documentary The American Nightmare, Craven had said:
“[Horror films are] boot camps for the psyche. It’s strengthening [kids’] egos and strengthening their fortitude… That’s something the parents never seem to think about… Even if [the films] are giving them nightmares, there’s something there that’s needed.”
In a really strange way, Craven became a father to us all - concocting on paper and then on film an array of boogeymen to scare us to our wit's end, not just so we could leave the theater laughing at the rush only a horror film can bring, but to prepare us for the real world...where things are much scarier, and much more dangerous.

In the days following his death, there was an appropriate amount of people who openly mourned, but there were also a faction of those who stated, unromantically, "Wes Craven actually made a lot of bad movies." And maybe that's true. Maybe many, or most, of Craven's films never managed to reach the scare-tinged heights of A Nightmare on Elm Street, the clever ingenuity of Scream, or the naked and honest brutality of The Last House on the Left, but no director on earth - living nor dead - is free of their own collection of mediocrity. One of the most celebrated genre directors ever to have lived, a man named Hitchcock, was not even free of such infallibility, and when he died, no Internet armchair critic was opining about all the bad films he made.

Which leads us, perhaps unceremoniously, to Shocker.


To call Horace Pinker a cheap Freddy Krueger re-appropriation wouldn't be a slight against the departed Craven, who has freely admitted over the years that his signing away of all rights to A Nightmare on Elm Street (which, in case you didn't know, generated enough money, along with its subsequent sequels, to establish the studio that would then go on to produce the Lord of the Rings trilogy) directly led to Shocker, in hopes that Craven could shape a new movie maniac with enough familiarity that it would create its own franchise which he could then control (and profit from).

That did not happen.

Man who comes out of your TV was no match for man who comes out of your nightmares.

Taken on its own merit, Shocker is very okay, if at times a little too silly, with an electric! (ugh) performance from Mitch Pileggi. Craven has always tried to mix humor into his horror films, and while this has often worked (Scream), other times the two very conflicting tones just don't work well together (Last House). For something like Shocker, in which a discorporated serial killer can travel through electrical circuits and end up on television shows, yeah, humor was to be expected. A silly movie would look even sillier if there wasn't a sly sense of humor throughout the whole thing.

Though you may not be able to tell by the finished product, Shocker was based on several distinct inspirations, from other films to Craven's own personal life. The construct of the film was inspired by a combination of 1951's The Thing From Another World and 1987's The Hidden, directed by Jack Sholder...who, quite ironically, had directed 1985's Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge. Personally, Craven has previously noted the tense relationship he had with his father, whom he described as "angry," and how the making of Shocker was an exorcism of sorts for his feelings toward him. Of the scene where Michael Murphy's recently possessed character tries to convince his son (Peter Berg) that he's fine, and that he's taken control, only to reveal that it was Pinker all along, Craven chuckled and observed, "I dunno, I guess I have trust issues."


The most striking thing about Shocker is how very similar it all plays out to A Nightmare on Elm Street - so much that Craven, while viewing the film for the first time since its post-production, admitted to being taken aback by all the similarities.

Shocker isn't a "great" addition to Craven's filmography, but in an odd way, it is essential viewing, if only to see a filmmaker retreading familiar ground in a different environment simply because that's where his sensibilities led him. However you may feel about Shocker, it's a pure, unfiltered Wes Craven film. And it's worth seeing for that alone.

Celebrate the catalogs of those filmmakers you revere. Lesser entries still have a lot of merit, and much to offer to completist viewers. Though it will never be spoken about with as much reverence as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Shocker very much contains Craven's aesthetic and sensibilities in every frame - not just in the usage of the dream relationships and walking premonitions, but in the power of the youth who are unable to depend on the nearest adult and have no choice but to take care of it themselves.

Father to us all, indeed.

Rest easy, Professor Craven. You are still very missed.


Jan 19, 2020

LEATHERFACE (1990)


Like a few other horror franchises, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series keeps on truckin’; a new entry is released every few years, with the most recent being 2018's Leatherface (confused yet?). Following the wonderful and visceral original, subsequent entries were all over the place in terms of quality. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1982) and Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1994) were completely insane. 2003's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake returned things to respectability, insofar as a Chainsaw movie could be, but the entries that followed, again, got worse and worse.

And meanwhile, sitting quietly in the corner, is 1990’s Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, the most middle-of-the-road film in the series, and the first to be released by a major studio...so you know what that means: studio interference and MPAA ball-breaking. Video editions of the sequel sport the “unrated” cut, restoring some of the grue and gore that was originally shot by director Jeff Burr that was then removed following a battle with the MPAA, although awkward edits that cut away from the violence suggest an even more violent version that has yet to the light of day. Famously, Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III features Viggo Mortensen in one of his earliest roles, and he's spoken candidly in the past about his work on the movie as well as its final iteration seen by audiences:
“[Shooting that movie] was fun. I don’t know how many times they sent that to the censors … They kept getting X’s and so they cut so much out that I think the movie is only like 70 minutes long. Unfortunately most of the really funny jokes were associated with gruesome bloodletting of some kind or another.” (Source: Carpe Noctem Magazine). “The movie company got cold feet and cut away the most terrifying and gruesome scenes, and it ended up being a rather incoherent movie.” (Source: M/S Magazine).
Despite Mortensen’s misgivings, Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, in its "unrated" form, is a perfectly acceptable entry in the chainsaw-wielding series, though except for adding a pint-sized kid to the Sawyer clan and a survivalist into the mix, it doesn’t try anything new. Burr, however, definitely gets points for casting horror-friendly actors, including William Butler and Jennifer Banko from Friday the 13th: Part VII — The New Blood, Ken Foree from Dawn of the Dead, and Mortensen, who at that point had done Renny Harlin’s Prison and the thriller Tripwire. Adding to that, Burr’s level of mayhem and bloody violence is admirable and appreciated, as is the blackest of black humor lifted from the original (and skipped by its sequel in favor of broader stupidity). Where Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III lacks is through its somewhat meandering pace (a LOT of time is spent with our characters wandering around the Texas woods) as well as its closeness to the original’s plot, which prevents it from establishing more of an identity.


Burr follows the “if it ain’t broke” mentality, but by doing so, he’s only further welcoming comparison to Hooper’s seminal original, at which point Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III doesn’t stand a chance. This isn’t necessarily his fault, as original distributor New Line Cinema had acquired the Chainsaw rights from Cannon Films in hopes of softly rebooting the series and creating a new direction where Leatherface would be its prominent boogeyman, similar to their very successful Nightmare on Elm Street series (hence the titular madman being called out in the title). That at least explains why Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III feels like a loose remake, although the dismal box office return put New Line’s plans on the back burner for several years. It’s also a little odd that New Line’s desired to make Leatherface more prominent a la Freddy Krueger, being that he has no more or less screen time here than he did in the original film. By comparison, Mortensen’s “Tex” gets way more to do. (I’m also trying to figure out where all these additional family members keep coming from. Are they actually related to Leatherface, or just a bunch of random Texan psychopaths who somehow found each other in the age before Craigslist? If they’re actual relations, where the hell were they during Dennis Hopper’s duel-chainsaw smackdown at the end of the previous sequel? Were they on vacation, or at mass? How do they multiply? Are they the products of inbreeding? What the hell goes on in the backwoods of Texas, anyway?) (I have to sit down.)

Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, despite the obviously tacked on ending, and that its “unrated” form still seems toothless at times, is a decent sequel and worthy of appreciation...only when looking at the other sequels. After seeing how off the rails the series eventually goes, Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III might even now be considered a high point — depending on who’s looking.

Jan 17, 2020

HELL NIGHT (1981)


Hell Night has long been one of those beloved cult horror titles that doesn’t have a lot of recognition value within the realm of mainstream audiences. It’s always existed just below the surface, and only dedicated horror fans seem to both know of its existence and bestow upon it a lot of love and praise. It was so nearly close to earning classic status.

And that’s pretty much how I’d sum it up.

Hell Night drifts in and out of engagement with the audience, easily capturing their attention with the intrigue of Garth Manor and the handful of fairly grisly murder sequences, but the action in between these moments can stretch on for a bit too long. Even the intent for characterization is appreciated, and it helps to elevate Hell Night above its slasher brethren. There’s just something keeping it from being truly great.


Hell Night also gets points for trying to do something a little different. On its surface it looks like your typical ‘80s slasher flick, but it’s told as a both a haunted house movie and somewhat of a monster movie. This balance actually works in its favor. Personally, I prefer the slasher flicks vying for sincerity where the killer reveal isn’t someone’s spurned friend or lover or long-lost parent. I prefer mythology and legend coming to life over, “Oh, it’s Gary.” Hell Night satisfies that, actually following through on all the creepy lore recounted at the film’s opening before our doomed characters enter Garth Manor where they will spend their Halloween night.

Hell Night is notable because it was produced by Irwin Yablans, who had previously produced John Carpenter’s Halloween and, as we all know, found great success with it.  (It was also at his insistence that the now-famous moniker be used over the original choice of "The Babysitter Murders," which ended up being a very wise choice. Could you imagine "The Babysitter Murders: BM20"?) He’s somewhat of an unsung hero in the horror world; granted, though he didn’t leave behind a breadth of work, he kept things short and sweet, producing titles that went on to find adoration from the fan community, with such titles as Halloween 2, Halloween 3: Season of the Witch, Tourist Trap, and later on, Renny Harlin’s Prison.


Hell Night is an admirable effort, and it’s easy to see why it’s so beloved (beyond how good Suki Goodwin looks in garters), but it too often fluctuates between tension and calm. A tighter edit would have resulted in a more streamlined experience where the tension doesn’t have the time to subside in between the bursts of terror.

However, it’s still one of the better titles from the ‘80s slasher movement and brings something a bit more to the table other than a masked maniac and ironic usage of a holiday.


Jan 15, 2020

SLAUGHTERHOUSE (1987)


For all of the ‘80s and slightly into the ‘90s, John Carpenter’s Halloween was the basis/inspiration for many imitator slasher films. Every holiday not yet exploited at that time soon became so. Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Day, Christmas (again and again), exam time, graduation time, spring break time, leprechaun time. If it had a date on the calendar, something horrific would take place and so many heads would bounce down the stairs.

However, what makes 1987’s Slaughterhouse a somewhat refreshing take on the teens-in-peril craze was its willingness to look to Tobe Hooper’s best film, the Ed-Gein-inspired tale of murder and macabre The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, for its inspiration. (Going a bit full circle, Slaughterhouse also seems to have directly inspired the ending for Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning). Hitting much of the same beats, a mentally rattled slaughterhouse owner and his mongoloid psychotic and mute son prone to wearing masks take their revenge on what they perceive to be the bureaucrats of their town who forcefully evict them from their home following their failing business’s inability to pay their taxes.

Naturally, this leads to violent murder and smashed heads.


Slaughterhouse bills itself as a comedy first and horror next (and I hate '80s horror-comedies), but except for a handful of characters’ none-too-subtle names-- the murderers are surnamed Bacon, while the heroine is named Lizzy Borden -- and one bizarre scene where the murderous Buddy plays dress-up and goes joyriding in a police car, there’s nothing on screen that’s played for obvious comedy. The teens mostly die bloody without much irony.  (Going a bit full circle, Slaughterhouse also seems to have directly inspired the ending for Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning). However, had Slaughterhouse been a throwback experiment made in modern times which was a satire on ‘80s culture, including the horror film, than it would be unfettered brilliance. Slaughterhouse is as a ‘80s as you can get, from the pop music, to the open-top jeep, and to the montage of smiling teens shopping in a drug store trying on gigantic sunglasses and smiling at themselves in the mirror.

Lots of slasher films, in part, come together as a whole to represent what one’s perception of an ‘80s horror film should be. Slaughterhouse takes care of that all by itself. It’s got: not-great acting, frisky teens dying gory deaths, a maniacal murder with a slight back story, hilarious fashions, a slight dependence on winking/nudging humor, terrible pop tunes, a kick-ass synth score, and just the tiniest bit of ingenuity (having teens be the ones to wear masks only to die bloodily was a nice touch). The only segment of the film where it’s entirely unwatchable would be the opening credits, during which cameras were allowed inside a functioning slaughterhouse to film a swine of pigs being slaughtered for real. Unfortunately the end of this chapter stop doesn’t coincide with the end of this sequence, so fast-forwarding (as I did) is your only recuse.


Considering its obvious lineage, it’s something of an honor that Slaughterhouse manages to outdo pretty much every film in the Texas Chain Saw Massacre series not including the original and its remake, but definitely including Hooper’s oddly celebrated sequel. If you’re a fan of the ‘80s slasher, Slaughterhouse is a slice of dumb, easily watchable fun. Blood flies, limbs roll, and Buddy Bacon enjoys every minute. I know I did.

Slaughterhouse is what it is, which is fun, bloody, none-too-serious, and somewhat unoriginal. However, its palpable ‘80s construction and it’s engaging-enough plot make it an easier watch to come out of the slasher craze. Buddy Bacon never earned the franchise that director Roessler had been hoping for, but his one-off is entertaining enough to have deserved it. Don’t miss it, or Buddy Bacon will have an ax to grind haw haw!