Archive for October 29, 2011

Well, friends, this one’s gonna be brief because we’re venturing into uncharted territory a bid here — the flick under review today, 1988’s The Undertaker, is actually an unfinished, believe it or not, but it’s worth looking at as it features the last starring turn of the one and only Maniac himself, the late, great Joe Spinell.

I’ll be the first to admit that this is included in our annual Halloween horror round-up more as an item of interesting curiosity than anything else. Given that director Franco Steffanino’s’s film ran into the twin obstacles of no more funding and Spinell’s untimely demise before it could be hammered out into finished form, essentially what we’re got on our hands here, thanks to the fine folks at Code Red DVD (specifications of said DVD being rather minimal here — the full-frame transfer looks pretty sparklingly, surprisingly good for the most part, though it veers into crummy, even downright greasy territory in some spots, and the sound is hit-and-miss to put it kindly — the only extra, cool as it is, consists of the legendary Robert Forster and his daughter, Kathrine, sharing their memories of Spinell — keep in mind I’m not complaining here because the fact that this thing even managed to get a DVD release at all is something of a miracle and I thank Code Red for doing all us Joe Spinell fans a great service here) is a rough cut of the movie. There’s very little by way of gore or other special effects, the editing is choppy (jarringly so in several instances), and the overall feel is of watching some semi-competent student project that just happens to feature a recognizable (to fans of cult cinema, at least) lead actor.

That being said, you can see that The Undertaker had some — I repeat, some — potential. Spinell is back to doing what he does best, playing a skin-crawlingly creepy and pathetic psycho, this time out said psycho going by the name of Roscoe, a small-town New Jersey mortician who has a penchant for necrophilia, a nagging wife who won’t leave him alone long enough to enjoy himself with his corpses, and a big problem with his business — namely, there just aren’t enough people dying in his town for him to have a variety of sexual — uhmmmmm — “partners,” not to mention a steady income.

As you can imagine, his only alternative is to take matters into his own hands and steer some business his way by dint of his own actions.

Spinell isn’t at his Maniac – level best here, but he still turns in a solid enough intentionally-way-over-the-top performance, and the overall tone of the film seems to be pretty self-deprecating in terms of its outrageously tasteless subject matter, but you never know how it all would have turned out with a few more scenes, a final edit, etc. Maybe the filmmakers unintentionally did us a great service by pulling the plug on this thing, or maybe we lost another Spinell classic, it’s hard to say (well, okay, it’s not — the surviving mish-mash of material leaves the distinct impression that we needn’t worry too much about the latter).

Still, in my book at least The Undertaker is definitely worth a look. You have to be willing to cut it a hell of a lot of slack, to be sure, but getting the chance to see Joe Spinell in action one final time makes putting up with all of this flick’s — how shall I put this? — glaring inconsistencies more than worthwhile. They just don’t make lecherously slimy cinematic killers like this anymore, and even in a raw and incomplete production (that, it must be stated, looked like it was most likely doomed to be a substandard effort anyway given the rather second-rate nature of the script),  Joe Spinell stands out.

What the hell? While we’re on the subject of Z-grade 1980s shot-on-video horror movies (and this one’s also part of the “Retro 80s Horror Collection” from Camp Motion pictures, in case you hadn’t already noticed — nice full-frame picture, good quality remastered stereo sound, extras include two commentaries, one from the director, another from three of the “stars,” a making-of documentary, video test shoots, and an investor’s (good luck with that) promo reel — and it’s shot on 16mm, not on video, but I didn’t want to ruin my intro segue), let’s take a quick look at one more, shall we? the “one more” in this case being writer-director Tim Ritter’s 1987 offering Killing Spree.

Shot in sunny Jupiter, Florida for the princely sum of $75,000, this one’s an absolute blast from start to (almost — more on that shortly) finish. With tongue planted so firmly in cheeks it’s just gotta hurt, Ritter tells us the simple tale of one Tom Russo (played up — rather than just played — to the hilt by Asbestos Felt — and yes, like you, I’m assuming — hell, desperately hoping — that’s not his real name), a guy who’s so convinced that his wife Leeza is cheating on him when he’s at work, out running errands, basically doing anything other than sitting at home and watching her like a hawk, that he figures his best course of action is just to start killing any guy who happens to be anywhere near his house at any time just in case he might be sleeping with her. And Tom not only has a grand old time dispatching them (watch for screwdrivers to the head, dismemberment (followed by an accidental death when he lobs said dismembered head off the balcony and right onto the noggin of an unfortunate passerby), all that good stuff), he figures spending too much time burying these folks is just time that could be better spent killing even more guys his old lady might be getting it on with, so he just buries most of them out in the back yard.

And that’s when things get a little bit hairy towards the end (I told you we’d be getting back to it sooner rather than later) — for reasons not entirely explained (well, okay, not explained at all, truth be told), Tom’s victims all rise from the grave and kill him at least as spectacularly as he did them. So yeah, things do go off the rails there a bit at the conclusion, but you know what? It’s all good, because this is one sadistic, malicious, tasteless, downright nasty little piece of businees, and it does it all with a wink and a nod.

First off, the effects are straight-up impressive. I mean, you’d think Ritter was spending some actual money  on this shit. Yeah, he’s hemmed in by his obvious limitations, of course, but that’s not about to stop him from making you go “eeeeeeeewwwwwwww!!!!!!!!!!!!!” as loudly, and as frequently, as possible. Huge props for that.

Secondly, everyone from felt on down through the cast is hamming it up in the best possible way, yet they all uniformly give the impression that they actually want you to think they might be playing this straight even though you’d have to be literally, clinically insane to think they were. Given that this type of overall uniformity in tone (admittedly bizarre as it is) absolutely can’t be chalked up to each and every individual in front of the camera on a movie this far below the “B” level being, you know, talented, credit has to be given to the director for clearly communicating, and then not stopping until he damn well gets, exactly what he wants from everyone involved.

Finally, a lot of the trappings inherent in the homemade horror genre (think long, slow pans of the scenery for no reason, lots of dead space with nothing going on — everything that goes with a medium where editing is such a pain in the ass when we’re comparing this to many of its contemporaries, which were SOV affairs) are noticeably, and thankfully, absent here. In short, Ritter doesn’t demand that you make allowances for his paltry budget — he just delivers the best-quality product that he possibly can given what he’s got to work with.

I don’t know why Tim Ritter never went on to have much more of a career. He certainly deserved bigger and better things slaving away on a bunch of direct-to-VHS-and-DVD “erotic thrillers,” by-the-numbers slashers, sci-fi cheapies, and crooked-cop crime “dramas.” But hey, give him credit — he’s carved out a living at it and is still going strong today. It certainly beats factory work, at any rate.

But based on the strength of Killing Spree alone, it’s this reviewer’s considered opinion that he probably deserved a shot at the big time. Or  at least bigger than he ever ended up getting.

As anyone who’s followed these Halloween horror roundups over the last couple of years on this blog (assuming, of course, that anyone has) knows, I love me some homemade 80s shot-on-video gore flicks. Sure, the acting’s usually either unintentionally camp or downright lifeless, the effects are fifth-rate, the stories are insipid, and the directors/DOPs (assuming they weren’t one and the same person, which they often were) had a tendency to linger on shots where pretty much nothing was happening for waaaaaayyyy too long simply because videotape was a bitch to edit. But hey, it’s all about heart, right?

Case in point — director Jon McBride’s (okay, I should stop right there for a second right there and point out that one Tom Fisher is also credited as a co-director here, but all indications are that this was McBride’s show pretty much from start to finish) 1988 zero-budget opus Cannibal Campout. In essence, this is a lot like the dreadful flick Chain Letter that we reviewed a few days back — it exists pretty much solely to drench the audience in blood n’ guts. But whereas Chain Letter had some money behind it but no heart, McBride’s movie has plenty of heart but no money. I don’t know about you, but I know which I’ll go with anytime (not to mention that this movie’s a whole lot less mean-spirited and cynical, but that’s a side issue).

As set-ups go, they don’t come much simpler than this — a mixed group of four friends heads out to the New Jersey woods (yes, they have trees there) for a weekend of camping and find themselves set upon one-by-one by a crazed trio of probably inbred mountain men who have been murdering and then devouring any poor souls unlucky enough to stumble across their path because — get his — they promised their momma on her deathbed that they wouldn’t eat any junk food!

And honestly that’s all you need to know because everybody’s in this thing for one reason and one reason alone — to get killed. Slowly, painfully, brutally, graphically, creatively — hell, damn near lovingly — killed.

I can’t say for certain, but I’m thinking that McBride’s biggest motivation in putting this thing out there — keep in mind most of these backyard SOV horror flicks were released on VHS by unscrupulous, fly-by-night distribution operations that basically all offered the same deal, namely we’ll release your film and keep pretty much all the money and you’ll have the chance to get your name out there and more or less nothing else — was to show off his chops as a Tom Savini wanna-be and maybe land some work on the makeup and effects crew of a picture with an actual (hell, any) budget.

He certainly wasn’t trying to impress anyone as the next great screenwriter or director, that’s for certain — this flick crawls along at a snail’s pace even when the killing starts and there are interminable lengths of absolutely nothing go on that you have to wade through in order to get to the good (relatively speaking, of course) stuff. But hey — it’s pretty obvious everybody’s having a good time regardless of whether or not they actually know what they’re doing and yeah, once the blood starts flowing and the entrails come spilling out and the faces get gnawed on and the organs get ripped loose it is impressive enough in a dime-store kind of way. Sure, you might be able to do just as well with all of it yourself if you had the time, inclination, smarts, and most of all the single-minded determination to do so, but you didn’t and Jon McBride did. Regardless of how amateurish most of what’s on display here is, you gotta give the guy credit for that.

Cannibal Campout is available on DVD from Camp Motion Pictures as part of its “Retro 80s Horror collection” series, and features a nicely done full-frame (of course) transfer of the film (whoops, better just call it a movie — it was shot on videotape, after all), pretty decent remastered stereo sound, a veritable feast (get it? cannibal flick? feast?) of extra including a feature-length commentary track with McBride, interviews with many of the cast and crew, a lengthy selection of deleted scenes and still photos, a bunch of trailers for other Camp titles. In short, it’s stuffed to the guts (get it again?) with goodies.

I won’t kid you — Cannibal Campout is so far removed from a masterpiece that the two words don’t even belong in the same neighborhood as each other, much less in the same sentence. But if you’re in the mood (and I freely admit that it’s entirely possible that your humble reviewer is one of the only people who actually gets in this mood) for a warts-and-all labor of love that seeks nothing more than to do as well as it can in the gruesomeness department and doesn’t even really care, much less try, when it comes to anything else, then hey — you could certainly do a whole lot worse.