Posts Tagged ‘slasher’

"Scream" Movie Poster

Let’s get one thing clear right off the bat : this movie has nothing whatsoever to do with Wes Craven’s postmodern revisionist slasher series that took the cinematic world by storm (for reasons your host still can’t quite fathom) in the late 90s/early 2000s. They share a title, but that’s it.

In point of fact,  writer-director Byron Quisenberry’s 1981 feature debut (he would go on to helm exactly one other film, something called Big Chuck, Little Chuck in 2004), Scream, also released under the equally nonchalant title of The Outing, bears little resemblance to any slasher before or since.

In the beginning, there were dolls

We open with a long, slow dolly crawl across a mantle in some unknown house in some unknown place. We see a series of dolls, some in various states of decapitation, a clock chimes, and we see an oil painting of a ship at sail on a stormy sea that’s dated 1891. We also get some voice-over from some unseen and unknown narrator about a sea captain, and the (sort of) cruel fate he suffered at the hands of  the”company men” who ran the ships. Then the clock we hear chiming is shown just as it strikes midnight, one of the dolls moves its eyes, and we’re gone from wherever it was we were.

The cast don't know what's going on, either

Next thing you know, we’re observing a group of folks (friends? business associates? it’s never really made clear — some appear to know each other, some are even related, as is the case with a teenage girl and her grandfather, but most don’t seem to know each other at all, so I guess it’s just one of those random “adventure tour” groups) on a rafting trip in what we’re later told is Texas (even though the film itself was shot on the old backlot at Paramount studios in Hollywood that they used for their westerns).  Tired from a long day, the group pulls in to shore on the lake/river/whatever and decides to find a place to camp for the night.

Walking just a bit inland, they find an old abandoned ghost town and decide, as you an I would I’m sure if we found a ghost town, that this looks like a pretty good place to spend the night. The two tour guides and their charges (one of whom is portrayed by John Wayne’s son, Ethan — the only other actors you might recognize are the aforementioned kindly grandfather, who appeared as the ancient bellhop on Twin Peaks that found agent Cooper lying on the floor and asked him what he was doing down there before taking forever to get him a telephone, and one-time John Ford regular Woody Strode, who isn’t part of the tour group but we’ll get to later) set to work rustling up some grub, drinking a few beers, fixing coffee, and getting their sleeping bags spread out on the floor of what appears to have one been a saloon.

Then the killings start. I guess. It’s hard to say for sure who’s doing the killing, although the rather haphazard script tries to play the traditional “whodunnit?” angle of making you wonder which member of the group is killing off the others.

Now, in their defense, Quisenberry and his cohorts weren’t filmmakers per se — they were stuntmen, who hustled up a little bit of a budget and were given free use of the old Paramount backlot to see if they could come up with a quickie slasher flick to make a few bucks since the early 80s slasher craze was in full boom at the time. Every major distributor, including Paramount itself, took a pass on the finished product when they saw it, but they managed to secure some limited fly-by-night independent distribution anyway, which is a testament to their perseverance.

But not to their skill. Scream plays out like exactly what it is — a low-budgeter made by some guys who had no clue what the fuck they were doing. But, again, to give credit where it’s due — by dint of sheer ineptitude and inexperience, they ended up coming up with a movie that, while in no way especially good, is certainly different enough from other similar fare to maintain interest throughout, even though, in fairness, it’s often crushingly,  even mind-numbingly, dull.

There’s a lot of sitting around and doing nothing on display here. There are pointless arguments with incredibly hokey dialogue. There is precious little by way of actual suspense. No compelling reason to actually give a shit about any of these characters is ever offered. In some cases, we never even learn their names.

In short, when they start dying, you really can’t be bothered to care. And it’s not only the blandness and sub-one-dimensionality of their portrayals that “achieves” this result — the nature of how they meet their ends contributes to this lethargy, as well.

Your standard "Scream" kill-shot

More often than not, we see a weapon or other implement hanging on a wall, we see an unseen hand begin to remove it, and then we see a dead body — that’s it. The bloody weapon might get hung back up. We might see some smoke in the darkness. We might see a long-distance shot of the corpse. And then again, we might not see any of that. One thing we definitely don’t see much of, though, is the person actually getting killed. There’s next to no gore on display here, just as there’s no T&A to make things at least dimly interesting, either.

In short, we’ve got a near-bloodless, near tit-less, near ass-less slasher flick that nonetheless racks up a semi-respectable (seven by my count, but the ambiguous nature of the ending leaves open the possibility of more) body count.

Woody Strode as the (sort of) Answer Man

As for exposition, there’s precious little of that, as well. The mysterious nature of the weapons being removed and almost floating toward their targets leaves open the possibility of a supernatural explanation for the murderous goings-on, but only when a mysterious rider (played by Western sorta-legend Woody Strode) comes into the ghost town on his horse with a Rottweiler a few steps ahead of him in the mist, shows the group one of their number that had gone out to find help but ended up dead (his covered body is slung over a second horse),  summarily dismounts, goes into the saloon, sits down, and lights up his pipe do we get the closest thing we’re ever going to get to an explanation here.

“Me and the captain, we came here when they gave him nary another ship. They were cruel men, them that run the ships. Company men.”

So, he was the narrator we heard at the beginning. Him and the captain came here (to the middle of Texas?) when the captain got put out to pasture. Company men are bad news. And that’s all we find out before he rides out again.

More people get killed in equally ineptly-staged ways. More scenes play out in such near-total darkness that it’s impossible to tell what the hell is going on, not that it really matters because you won’t care anyway. And then we get a kinda-bloody sickle sitting on the saloon floor and it’s never made clear if everybody’s dead at this point or what. But things are definitely over. How do we know this?

The murderous (I guess) Captain

Because next thing you know, we’re back in the house from the beginning, and back at the mantle, and “treated” to a long, slow crawl that shows the decapitated dolls, the chiming clock (it’s midnight again) and a new painting, this time a portrait of the unnamed Captain, dated 1891. And once again we hear the flat, but admittedly smooth, monotone of Woody Strode telling us:

“Me and the captain, we came here when they gave him nary another ship. They were cruel men, them that ran the ships. Company men.”

I just don’t know, friends. I guess the murderous spirit of  “the Captain” haunts the ghost town he came to when the company men clipped his sea legs and if people show up there, he kills them. But it sure could have been a lot more, well — clear, I guess. Especially for the victims. Call me old-fashioned, but if you’re gonna get killed, I’d like to know at least who is doing it, if not why.

"Scream" DVD from Code Red/ Media Blasters

Scream had a long, torturous path to its recent DVD release. Originally announced by Code Red, who assembled the extras, it was canceled due to low pre-orders, but appeared about a year later as a joint release from Code Red and Media Blasters, under their Shriek Show label. The print has some flaws, explained by the fact that it was shot in 16mm but blown up to 35mm for theatrical release, so there’s some understandable graininess to the image throughout. The digitally remastered anamorphic transfer does look as good as it probably can, though, all things considered. The sound is remastered mono is suitably crisp and clear. As far as extras go, there’s a theatrical trailer, a TV spot, a selection of other Media Blasters trailers, and then one giant missed opportunity in the form of the feature commentary.

Scream is a movie that has perplexed horror fans for years, and exerted a kind of strange allure over those who actually knew about it. Simply put, people want to know more — specifically, what the hell were these guys thinking? Unfortunately, in the commentary, writer-director Quisenberry proves to be somewhat untalkative, with Bill Olsen of Code Red and moderator Marc Edward Hueck literally having to pull information out of the guy. The best explanation we ever get for why the killings are so bizarrely staged is “we were going for a European thing,” a pretty unsatisfactory fallback explanation that Quisenberry resorts to on numerous occasions. When the dead air gets to be too much, Olsen and Hueck literally change the subject to completely unrelated matters just to get this guy to actually talk about anything. When the subject comes back to the movie itself, though, Quisenberry obviously can’t remember that much about what they did or why they did it and can’t really be bothered to have his memory jogged too often. So anyone watching the commentary hoping for some concrete answers is going to come away understandably disappointed.

But maybe it’s for the best, since the most obvious explanation, “we had no idea what we were doing,” just isn’t going to cut it for many hardcore horror aficionados at this point even though it’s probably the God’s-honest truth.

I can only recommend Scream for true slasher junkies and those who seek out cinematic curiosities for their own sake. It plays by its own set of rules and it’s quite clear those rules are being made up as they go along. There’s next to no onscreen bloodletting, there’s no nudity, there’s barely any foul language, there’s no “final girl” — the list of standard slasher ingredients that it just outright ignores is endless. Quisenberry makes clear that they weren’t actually trying to make anything here but a standard horror flick with a little bit of a supposedly “European” feel to it. What they ended up with is something entirely different, and entirely unlike anything else you’ll ever see.

It’s just that most people really won’t want to see it.

"A Night To Dismember" Opening Titles

What would you do if you had a completed film “in the can,” so to speak, but a disgruntled lab worker at the processing facility where it was being developed set fire to the place and destroyed 40% of your movie, leaving you with just over an hour of usable footage, all from various unrelated segments of your flick?

And what if, by an even more cruel twist of fate, it turned out that the destroyed 40% was some of the most crucial material, and what you had left made little to no sense without its inclusion?

Imagine, for instance, you had a ten-minute short film about a couple who have an argument in the park that results in their breakup. You had six minutes of footage left relatively unscathed, but it was the six minutes showing them going to the park and leaving, with the crucial four minutes of argument and breakup material gone, leaving you with a “story” that looks, for all intents and purposes, like two people just walking to the park and then leaving under much the same circumstances as they arrived.

Would you just shoot the thing over? I guess that would make the most sense. But what if you were broke, since all your money was used up on the production of your little indie opus, the print itself was uninsured, so you couldn’t recoup any of your losses,  and it was due to play at a local short festival in a week or so?

Well, that’s what happened to B-movie auteur Doris Wishman in 1982, only on an even larger scale.

Despite being a key player in the exploitation movie business for nearly three decades at the time, Wishman had never actually made a proper horror flick before, with most of her efforts being sexploitationers like Nude on the Moon, Deadly Weapons, Double Agent 73, and Blaze Starr Goes Nudist — but in the early 80s, spurred on by the success of films like Halloween and Friday the 13th, slashers were all the rage, and Wishman, ever the savvy low-rent businesswoman, wasn’t about to let that gravy train pass her by.

And can you blame her? A genre that requires no big-name actors, no expensive sets, and has a guaranteed built-in audience at grindhouses and drive-ins all across the country was something no B-movie maker could really afford to pass on. As long as people were getting killed, audiences were happy, and if you made movies literally to pay your rent or make your mortgage payment, this was just too good a deal not to get in on. A license to print money!

Wishman began her first and only voyage into slasherdom the way she began all her productions — with a title, in this case the rather catchy A Night To Dismember. Then she filmed a roughly five-minute trailer, another staple ingredient in her filmmaking stew. With no completed script, no actual cast in place, and no idea where or when the movie itself would be shot, she then would shop these trailers around to potential investors in a bid to secure what she billed as “completion funds.” The movie’s budget would be whatever she was able to raise using this rather unconventional, but usually marginally successful, sales “technique.”

With these “completion funds” in place, she would then finish a script, get a cast in place, secure some filming locations (as often as not utilizing her own house as the primary scene of the action), and shoot a movie that often bore little to no resemblance to the trailer she’d shot earlier.

That’s putting it all on the line for you art, my friends, which is why I’ll always say, despite all physical evidence to the contrary, that Wishman had more balls than most of her male contemporaries.

Anyway, it’s 1982 and our lady Doris has just followed the MO outlined above to make this cheap little slasher flick, A Night To Dismember. She shot it over the course of a couple of weeks, mostly in and around her own house (in, I believe, New Jersey), the only “star” of note whose services she could secure on her budget was late-70s/early-80s second-tier porn actress Samantha Fox (not to be confused with the British topless “Page 3 Girl”/wannabe-pop starlet of the same name who would come along a few years later) who was looking to break into the “legitimate” film business, and the script was a fairly bog-standard little extra-gory murder mystery about a seriously dysfunctional family.

In short, a girl gets sent to an insane asylum as a teenager, gets out in her (supposedly) late 20s, and upon her release her brother and sister enact a devious little scheme to send her back to the bughouse because they don’t want her cutting in on daddy’s affections and, more importantly, his money. They figure they’ll subject her to all kinds of taunting and nightmare visions to make her question her own sanity, and hey, if that doesn’t work, they’ll maybe even kill some people and try to make it look like crazy sis must have done it. That ought to get her out of the picture.

Wishman, as ever, recorded the film without sound and shot it from a safe enough distance in most sequences so that audiences wouldn’t notice the shitty quality of the dubbed-in audio track later. When close-ups were required, she focused on eyes, foreheads, necks, nearby inanimate objects — literally anything but the actors’ mouths, just in case the sound and the images didn’t quite synch up — which they usually didn’t.

So, the movie’s done. And what’s more, it’s been sold. It’s set to play the bottom half of double-bills in various regional markets in early 1983, and as the prints make their rounds up and down 42nd street and around to various rural drive-ins, Wishman is sure to make enough to recoup her investors’ costs as well as line her pockets with at least a little bit of the change left over. After all, she’d done this  dozens of times in the past. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, if you’re an astute reader — hell, even just a reader with an attention span lasting longer than oh, say, five minutes — you’ll already know what went wrong. Wishman sent her print to a company called Movielab to be developed. Movielab was having some financial troubles. The paychecks for many of their workers bounced. And one particularly enterprising employee decided he wasn’t going to take this lying down — so he literally set fire to the place.

If the movie doesn't make any sense, why would a caption?

Wishman had never insured a print in her life, and didn’t do so in this case, either. So what she had left after the Movielab fire was 60% of her footage, for which no sound had yet been added, and no money to go back and try to do things over. And her movie was due to open in a couple of months.  This is when true B-movie makers bring their “A” game.

Doris went to work. First up, she edited what she had left into as close to a sensible order as humanly possible, even though, as mentioned before, a lot of the most crucial stuff was gone. Then she spliced in some footage from her promotional trailer, even though the “story” depicted there didn’t much resemble the movie she’d made (if you’ve read rather than skimmed this review, I’m assuming you’ll understand why that statement makes sense). She added in some outtake footage from other movies she’d made to pad out the run time. And she wrote and then laid out a feature-length narration track over the whole thing so that this discombobulated series of scenes, where one sequence would have absolutely nothing to do with what was on the screen right before it, would maybe, sort of, almost make something resembling, you know, sense.

Was it a successful effort? Hell no, how could it be? When you’ve got someone walking outside followed by people sitting in a room talking followed by someone getting an axe through their head, there’s only so much you can do. But the voice-over, provided by a supposed “private investigator” named Tim O’Malley, does at least put the completely unrelated events in some kind of plausible sequential order. He relates the events of “Bloody October” in 1986 (yes, the film was released in ’83, but I think Wishman was giving herself a little extra time in case the whole thing didn’t come together for a few more years — she may not have had any actual physical insurance, but narrative insurance is free) in the only way possible given what we see unfolding/haphazardly landing on the screen, the film clocks in at 68 minutes — the bare minimum to get feature distribution — and hey, Wishman got it out in enough time to ride the slasher gravy train before it petered out.

How much of a "plot" do you really need to understand what's happening here?

I’m not going to claim that Wishman accidentally found greatness with the end product here,  that dire circumstances proved to be an act of serendipity that resulted in an unheralded horror masterpiece. There’s a reason A Night to Dismember isn’t regarded as a slasher classic — it’s just not very good. But it certainly should be seen by any true B-movie aficionado. The fact that it even exists is a testament to Doris Wishman’s sheer determination and/or desperation — probably both. It exists because it has to, and in that sense it’s probably just about the most honest movie you’ll ever see.

"A Night To Dismember" DVD from Elite Entertainment

A Night To Dismember is available on DVD from Elite Entertainment. It’s a heck of a little package, considering the source, and features not only, surprisingly, a 16×9 widescreen transfer of the film, but also the promotional trailer footage (again, shot before the movie itself was actually made) and a feature-length commentary from Doris Wishman herself, recorded shortly before her death in 2002, and her longtime cinematographer Chuck Smith. This commentary is, as you might imagine, absolutely invaluable in terms of trying to actually understand the flick itself, and furthermore it’s a lot of fun with Wishman and Smith engaged in some fun bickering banter throughout (well, to be honest, Wishman bickers, Smith just sort of takes it all in good humor — but you can picture his eyes rolling almost non-stop throughout). To be honest, the movie’s a lot better with the commentary track on than it is on its own — but it definitely helps to watch it without it first, then to put it on in order to understand just what the fuck it is you’ve witnessed.

A Night To Dismember is an exercise in pure cinematic necessity. It resembles, most closely, a piece of “outsider art” or surrealism, although it certainly wasn’t intended to. It just is the way it is because it literally can’t be any other way. But here’s the irony — if somebody like David Lynch or Alejandro Jodorowsky (n0 offense intended to either of those two truly outstanding filmmakers, I invoke their names merely because it makes sense for reasons of comparison)  set out to make a movie like this on purpose, it would be heralded as an artistic triumph. Doris Wishman makes a movie like this because it’s the only thing she can do with what she’s got and everyone says it’s a piece of crap.

Go figure.

Original "Pieces" Movie Poster

Original "Pieces" Movie Poster

The obscure 1982 Spanish-lensed slasher “Pieces” (titled “Mil Gritos Tiene La Noche” in its home country) is blessed with two tag lines so good that no film deserves them both — “You Don’t Have To Go To Texas For A Chainsaw Massacre!” and “It’s Exactly What You Think It Is!” And even though both statements are (how’s this for a rarity?) absolutely true, the fact is that it’s still tough to live up to a pair of slogans that frigging cool. “Pieces” gives it a good effort, though, and sometimes succeeds even in spite of itself.

“Pieces,” you see,  is a movie absolutely unconcerned with doing anything else apart from delivering the goods — the goods in this case being, of course, gut-churningly bloody mutilation and dismemberment in enormous quantity, with plenty of gratuitous nudity thrown into the mix to keep the audience in their seats even when no one is getting killed. In pursuit of that (some would say noble, I suppose) goal, director Juan Piquer Simon (“Cthulhu Mansion” and the MST3K favorite “Pod People,” among others) is willing to sacrifice anything and everything along the way—plot coherence, acting professionalism, basic safety standards, even any shred of dignity itself (upon finding out that one of his actresses got really petrified at the idea of a chainsaw in close pr0ximity to her—understandable enough—Simon had his chainsaw-wielding killer corner her, run the thing right up next to her, and filmed her  her literally pissing her pants with fear)  are all obstacles in the way of  giving the audience exactly what they’re paying for.

In a way, one can’t blame Simon and the other folks behind the scenes of “Pieces.” 1982 was, after all, the height of the slasher phenomenon, and to stand out amongst all the Michael- and Jason-inspired clones out there, you really had to up the ante, and “Pieces” sure does that. Even today the level of gore on display here is pretty damn shocking. The flick’s openly-noticeable lack of concern for anything apart from grotesque murder, though, almost undermines the sheer bloody-mindedness of their efforts, though—almost.

Our story begins in the early 1940s, when a young boy is assembling a jigsaw puzzle of a naked girl in his bedroom. He’s caught by his mother, though, who throws an absolute fit, demands he get rid of the thing immediately, accuses him of being exactly like his deadbeat, no-good father, and says she’ll be back in a minute to ransack through all his stuff and get rid of any other “filth” she finds. Upon her return, though, the boy decides he doesn’t like that idea so much and chops her to bits with an axe. When a neighbor lady arrives for a visit, the boy hides in the closet, and soon said neighbor and the police are calling on the phone (a touchtone in 1942?) and then barging in by force, whereupon they quickly find our precocious lad’s handiwork and, in short order, the boy himself, who tells them a man burst in and chopped his mother to bits while he hid himself away. They buy his story with no questions asked and arrange to turn him over to the care of some relatives.

Is your dresser decorated with one of these? The head of the killer's mom from "Pieces"

Is your dresser decorated with one of these? The head of the killer's mom from "Pieces"

Fast-forward 40 years and we’re at an unnamed college campus purportedly in the Boston (actually Madrid) area, where a young lady on a skateboard is completely unaware of the fact that a couple of movers up the block are hauling a large wall-sized mirror into their truck. She can’t stop her downhill momentum until it’s too late, though, and crashes into the glass, screaming and sending broken shards flying in every direction. Yes, folks, our killer is back in action! What’s that, you say? This has more the look or a totally random and tragic accident than any sort of premeditated killing? Well, that’s the kind of movie “Pieces” is— one where complete and utter happenstance is supposed to be taken as a part of a dastardly masterplan. It’s called “suspension of disbelief” and you, my friend, are just thinking too hard.

Soon we learn that our mystery murderer is, in fact, trying to complete his jigsaw puzzle from 40 years ago, only this time with real human body parts rather than cardboard segments. Who among the cast we are introduced to is our mystery maniac, though? The mild-mannered Dean of the college? Professor Brown, a homosexual anatomy teacher? Kendall (Ian Sera), the dorkiest ladies’ man you ever saw whose dates have a habit of winding up at the business end of the killer’s chainsaw? Willard the groundskeeper (portrayed by the great Paul Smith), a guy who loves to polish his sawblade and gives everyone the “evil eye” quite literally all of the time?

Does it really matter? Of course not, because “Pieces” never even makes the slightest effort to get us to give a damn about this purported little “mystery.” Instead, it’s doling out blood, boobs, and viscera by the bucketful. We’ve  got naked coeds sawed up at the side of swimming pools, cut in half inside elevators, sliced to—well—pieces on waterbeds, shred up in broad goddamn daylight in the middle of the park—anywhere you can kill somebody, our guy does it, and with a hell of a lot of gusto. He doesn’t care about making noise (why should he? This is evidently a college where the sound of a running chainsaw doesn’t attract much attention of any sort) or leaving a mess. He just wants to complete his puzzle by any and every means at hand.

The blood and guts are all of the “just picked this shit up at the slaughterhouse” variety, and like all abattoir-purchased gore they’re quite effective precisely because of their obvious cheapness. Fifty bucks at the butcher shop gets you a lot bigger—and better—selection of gory entrails than thousands paid to the best make-up and effects men has always been your host’s humble opinion. So kudos to Simon and the “Pieces” production team for not sparing in this department and giving us all the putrescence we can handle and then some.

While the gore is extremely well-realized, though, the same cannot be said of the investigation into the killings that becomes central to the movie’s “plot.” Our crack team of police professionals includes grizzled veteran Lt. Bracken (Christopher George of “City Of The Living Dead” and “The Exterminator,” among a million other B-movie credits), undercover agent/tennis pro Mary Riggs (George’s real-life wife, Lynda Day—who knew the cops had secret operatives working the women’s pro tennis tour?), and—the aforementioned super-poor-man’s Casanova Kendall, who Bracken instinctively trusts for no apparent reason to the point where he asks him to put his life on the line on numerous occasions and to “watch over” Mary while she’s working her undercover assignment on campus, and to whom he grants access to highly confidential police files and records without so much as a second thought. I know we hear a lot about police budget cuts and manpower shortages, but please!

Oh, wait, there I go, thinking again—and if there’s one thing you simply can’t afford to do if you want to “enjoy” this movie, it’s think.

Along the not-so-twisting-and-turning path of “mystery” that “Pieces” takes us on, we do get some truly great scenes, even if they’re all pretty unintentional. Lines like “the most beautiful thing in the world is smoking pot and fucking on a  waterbed at the same time,” for instance, should be enshrined in movie history right up there with “here’s looking at you, kid.” And the English-language dubbing is so comically inept that the film can be watched a second (or tenth, or whatever) time through just for the entertainment value inherent in that alone. The plot holes are massive enough to drive an 18-wheeler through unscratched. A scene where the school’s “kung fu professor” (yes, you read that right) attacks Mary for no reason whatsoever and blames it on “bad chop suey” making him black out and lose his mind is more awesome than just about anything else ever filmed. Paul Smith is out of this world as the leering, psychotic-appearing Willard.   And like I’ve mentioned a million times already, the cheap gore is both plentiful and plenty sickening.

"Mr. Evil Eye" himself, Paul Smith, as Willard the groundskeeper, having a---ummm---"conversation" with the Dean

"Mr. Evil Eye" himself, Paul Smith, as Willard the groundskeeper, having a---ummm---"conversation" with the Dean

Our final verdict here, then, is that this is, indeed, exactly what you think it is. Certainly no more — clearly  nothing apart from producing the most extreme gorefest possible on pretty much no budget mattered one iota to Simon and company—but no less, either. “Pieces” is hardly a unique, original, or even particularly professional entry into the slasher oeuvre, but it sets itself one goal and one goal only and tears into it like a hungry dog with a raw steak — and you sort of can’t help but admire watching that play out in front of you.

And as for the ending—well, I’m not going to say a damn thing. I’m just not. You really have to  see it for yourself. About six times. And you still won’t understand what the fuck they were thinking. But hey—no less an authority than Eli Roth says it’s the greatest ending in movie history, so what do I know?

"Pieces" Double-Disc Set From Grindhouse Releasing

"Pieces" Double-Disc Set From Grindhouse Releasing

After being available for years only in a low-rent, direct-transfer-from-VHS, bare-bones DVD from Diamond, “Pieces” was released in a colossally cool two-disc set from Grindhouse Releasing late last year. In addition to a top-notch high-res digitally remastered anamorphic transfer, the set also boasts tons of lengthy, in-depth interviews with Paul Smith and Juan Piquer Simon, an original Spanish soundtrack  option with original score (the English-version score being composed entirely of library tracks), a massive set of productions stills and advertising poster art from around the world, a whole bunch of  hidden “easter eggs,” and, in lieu of a commentary track (whoch would, I admit, have been nice), we get a pretty cool soundtrack option Grindhouse labels “The Vine Theater Experience,” which is a live recording of a screening of the film at the Vine theater in Hollywood a few years back, and it’s a lot of fun to give it at least one listen and check out all the (5.1-mixed) audience reactions to what they’re seeing on the screen. And,  as a final added plus, there’s a great liner notes essay by legendary horror journalist Chas Balun. All in all, an extremely worthwhile addition to your exploitation DVD library.

Original VHS Box Cover For "The Last Horror Film"

Original VHS Box Cover For "The Last Horror Film"

It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but when you’re imitating yourself, what should that be called? Resting on your laurels? Beating a dead horse? In the case of the 1982 reworking of “Maniac” known as “The Last Horror Film” such pejoratives are probably undeserved, and we’ll settle, I think, on calling it a transplant—more specifically, a rather successful transatlantic transplant of a damn good slasher film. Not so much a sequel or even a rip-off as maybe a companion piece. Read on and all will be explained—

Most slasher fans will acknowledge that William Lustig’s “Maniac” was undoubtedly one of the genre’s finest early-80s offerings(a time period with an embarrassment of riches to choose from, so that’s no small feat), featuring as it did two standout elements, the first being the late Joe Spinell’s absolute tour-de-force performance in the lead role. He absolutely oozed creepiness and patheticness at the same time, and delivered one of the signature performances in horror movie history. Spinell didn’t even seem like he was acting, truth be told—he absolutely inhabited his character, to the point where I’m not sure I’d want to be the guy’s neighbor in real life. He wasn’t playing a lonely, pathetic psycho—I’ll be goddamned if it didn’t seem like he was a lonely, pathetic psycho. Chillingly believable stuff from start to finish, and in a sane and just world he probably would have won an Oscar for it.

The other star of the film was Tom Savini’s outstanding gore effects, limited as they were—particularly the classic ending scene. This was the era when Savini was really coming into his own and earning his legendary reputation with every project he worked on.  Gut-wrenching stuff—-literally. What this guy could do with “real” effects and a shoestring budget still puts today’s CGI “wizards” with millions of dollar as their disposal to shame.

Sadly, Savini wasn’t a part of “The Last Horror Film” (aka “Fanatic,” a title that tied it in even closer with its—ahem!—“source material,” probably even a bit too close as it was little more than a glaringly obvious attempt to paint the film as a type of “Maniac 2”—which, okay, in many respects it is, but since the original “Maniac” died, it’s rather ridiculous to paint this as a “pure” sequel — not that death ever stopped the Jasons, Michaels, and Freddies of the world), nor, unfortunately, was director William Lustig, who wove an atmosphere of tension and inner psychic decay with his expert helmsmanship, in truth TLHF is more dependent than ever on Spinell to carry the show himself, teamed as he was with relative newcomer David Winters in the director’s chair and, generally speaking, less-experienced folks behind the camera in all respects. Without Lustig and Savini around, then, “The Last Horror Film” gives Spinell a chance to prove how much of the success of “Maniac” was down to him alone and how much was due to Lustig, Savini, et. al.

As it turns out, Spinell answers that question forcefully and with supreme confidence, turning in another fine performance as, for all intents and purposes, the same character, albeit with a couple of fun twists.

This time around, Spinells’ non-“Maniac” maniac is a New York cabbie named Vinny Durand, a mama’s boy who still lives at home (go figure) and is the sole inhabitant of the absolute bottom of his own social barrel, a guy who’s such a loner and a putz that even the other geeks at the local comic book store give him shit. Vinny’s a bit of a dreamer, you see, and his mind is always at the movies. He lives, eats, breathes and sleeps celluloid, and has big dreams of making his own films a reality. And the star of all his filmic fantasies is the lovely Jenna Bates  (Carlone Munro, Spinell’s co-star from “Maniac,” providing another strong tie to Lustig’s , errrmmmm, let’s call it “original,” even if this isn’t a sequel, strictly speaking). Vinny’s bout to prove all those doubters and finger-pointers wrong, however—he’s been saving his pennies (living at home is cheap, after all) and is headed to the Cannes film festival, where he intends to win the attentions, and the heart, of the woman of his dreams and cast her as the leading lady in the horror film he’s got swirling around in his head (no evidence of an actual plot on paper on Vinny’s part is ever offered).

Once at Cannes, Vinny is summarily rebuffed in all his attempts to get at Ms. Bates or even any of her handlers, and decides that if he can’t get her to work with him by using conventional means, he’ll simply eliminate anyone and everyone else around her to the point where she’ll have no one else to work with — call it process of elimination, if you will — elimination of the permanent sort.

The sights and sounds of the festival are on full display here, including a guerrilla-lensed (I’m assuming) take or two of contemporary sort-of stars like Cathy Lee Crosby making their entrances into various festival venues.  Vinny’s staying in a fleabag hotel adjacent to, of course, a movie theater (that’s playing “Cannibal Holocaust”!) and quickly decks out his room to look much like his—err, not his— hovel in “Maniac,” with pin-ups on the walls of Ms. Bates, dim lighting, and sparser-than-sparse actual furnishings. The room’s got “nutcase” written all over it.

When Vinny goes into action murdering Bates’ handlers (including her love interest)and anyone else around whose work rubs him the wrong way, the killings are inevitably brutal and bloody, and while lacking the sheer panache of Savini’s “Maniac” work, they remain nonetheless effective and even semi-memorable in their own way. Needless to say, some of Vinny’s attempts to get at his leading lady border on the absurd, and when he does eventually get at her the border is even crossed, but Vinny’s not one to let an army of hangers-on and middlemen stop him, and the shots of him scaling hotel rooftops and performing various other feats of physical dexterity that would be well beyond a guy of his challenged physique are well and truly ridiculous, sure, but Spinell’s performance is so effective that he gets you to literally believe that our guy Vinny is compelled to do the near-impossible by sheer force of his demented will alone.

Vinny’s a good boy and calls home every day, of course, and he even seems to have his mom believing that he’s on the way to becoming a superstar director who has attained the services of the film industry’s most-desired starlet for his film.  It’s classic stuff, and while the live-at-home loser who will kill to fulfill his sick fantasies has been done a million times over, nobody does it quite like Spinell and it’s also, to my knowledge at least, never been done in a setting quite this exotic.

To be sure, “The Last Horror Film” lacks some of the dramatic tension and raw impact of “Maniac,” but that’s only to be expected—after all, Cannes setting aside, we’ve seen this all before. Still, everything here is done well enough that you certainly won’t mind seeing it again, and if for some reason Joe Spinell didn’t convince you the first time around that he was one of the best actors ever at playing lonely, pathetic psychopaths, seeing him do it just as well a second time should cement his argument.

Troma's New DVD Release Of TLHF, From The "Tromasterpiece" Collection

Troma's New DVD Release Of TLHF, From The "Tromasterpiece" Collection

“The Last Horror Film” has recently been re-released on DVD by Troma (it had been available earlier under the “Fanatic” title) as part of its fledgling “Tromasterpiece” collection. In addition to the usual nonsensical Lloyd Kaufman introduction, it features an interview with “Maniac” director William Lustig, the Buddy Giovinazzo-directed, short film “Mr. Robbie” (aka “Maniac 2”—which I guess sort of makes this “Maniac 3”),the original theatrical trailer and a collection of TV spots, an interview with the late, great Joe Spinell’s best friend, Luke Walter, and a full-length(and highly engaging) audio commentary by Walter, as well as the usual semi-absurd Troma-themed extra stuff.  Well worth your time and money, it’s a pretty impressive package to go along with what is a pretty impressive slasher flick — one that by all rights should feel a lot more redundant than it actually does.