Friday, October 28, 2016

Hail to the King: EVIL DEAD

It’s the end of October and the final installment in this year’s DIY Halloween Horror theme.  So far I’ve written about H.G. Lewis’ slapdash birth of gore film BLOOD FEAST, Leif Jonker pouring his heart and soul and a thousand gallons of fake blood into DARKNESS, and Peter Jackson’s goofy and goo-filled alien massacre comedy, BAD TASTE.  All of these movies hold an important place in the history of cinema, but now, I come to what is arguably the most successful, influential, and defining DIY horror movie ever, Sam Raimi’s phantasmagorical, ram-o-cam masterpiece, EVIL DEAD.

The Capsule:
A group of college aged (though not necessarily college attending) friends load up into a ’73 Oldsmobile and head off for a relaxing weekend in the woods.  Ash (Bruce Campbell), girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker), pal Scotty (Richard DeManincor), Scotty’s gal Shelly (Theresa Tilly), and sensitive, artistic fifth wheel Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) make their way to a dilapidated cabin deep in an isolated forest.  Unfortunately for them, the previous owner of the cabin left a few things behind, like the ancient Ka’n Darian Book of the Dead and a tape recording of him reciting passages on demon resurrection.  The passage unleashes the evil within the woods, and soon Ash’s friends are being possessed in very horrifying ways.  Can Ash survive the ordeal, or will the woods swallow his soul as well?

These days, Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson are on roughly the same level of mainstream acceptance.  Jackson has a few Oscars under his belt, but Raimi gave the world a jazz dancing Peter Parker, so it’s pretty much even.  The big difference is in their first features.  BAD TASTE holds little resemblance to any of Jackson’s films past DEAD ALIVE.  EVIL DEAD, on the other hand, has Raimi’s directing DNA all over it.  This is not just because Raimi occasionally returns to his horror roots.  Many of the inventive camera techniques and the off-kilter atmosphere he developed for EVIL DEAD still show up in his movies today.  Additionally, he has repurposed certain props over and over throughout the years, like the Oldsmobile Delta 88, and Bruce Campbell. 

Not only was EVIL DEAD distinctly a Sam Raimi movie, it was also a technically far superior film.  I don’t want to knock BAD TASTE, which is an amazing accomplishment considering the tiny amount of resources Jackson and his crew had access to, but it still feels like a bunch of (talented) friends clowning around and having fun.  As rough around the edges as it is, EVIL DEAD is a full-fledged, creative, and incredibly effective horror movie.  Raimi shows a mastery of visual and auditory storytelling right from the start.  We never need to know what the “evil in the woods” is or looks like, Raimi’s incredible swooping POV shot and the terror on everyone’s faces tells it all.  His use of pronounced, repetitive sound effects (the thumping of the swing, the clock pendulum, the sound passing over the rafters) accentuates the creepiness of the cabin.  Raimi makes the claustrophobic environment within the woods completely immersive.

The pacing is another of the movie’s strengths.  A lot of horror movies spend the beginning establishing the characters and spelling out their relationships to each other.  Raimi doesn’t waste time with that.  Everything you need to know evolves naturally as the story unfolds.  The real action doesn’t start until about half way through, but Raimi keeps an atmosphere of pervasive dread right from the start.  Even before they play the demon-raising tape recording, the cabin and surrounding woods are shown as a haunted, malicious place.  The recited passages only serve to get the evil fully stirred up.  The possessions start when the woods itself literally invades poor Cheryl’s body.  As soon as she is fully transformed, the others begin to drop like flies.  It becomes a classic siege movie, the survivors trying desperately to keep the demons out of (or stuck under) the cabin.  The security of the ramshackle walls is just an illusion, however.  The evil is capable of smashing through the window to instantly possess Shelly.  In the end [SPOILER?], it abandons all pretense and rams straight through the cabin, in full daylight, to go after a supposedly victorious Ash.  It has just been playing with them the entire time.

Incidentally, if there was any piece of Cheryl remaining in her demonified body, I can only imagine that she looked at Shelly and thought “What the fuck, dude?  I get assaulted by roots and she gets possessed through the friggin’ window?!?  She didn’t even have to go outside.  How is that fair?  This possession business is rigged!”

These days Bruce Campbell is synonymous with the EVIL DEAD films, but in the beginning there is no indication Ash will be the standout character.  This isn’t groovy Ash, it’s just Ashley.  Campbell plays him straight, with only a hint of comedy and no swagger.  Much like Ripley in ALIEN, he’s just part of the group, as vulnerable as anyone.  Even when he becomes the focus of the movie halfway in, it’s because of attrition, not heroism.  In fact, Ash comes off pretty cowardly compared to DeManincor’s more assertive (and douche baggy) Scotty.  Ash is wishy-washy, he freezes when shit goes down, and he can’t follow thorough.  He’s the last person you would think would one day have a sweet chainsaw hand.

By the way, if this had been a modern movie, the scene where he gives his girlfriend the necklace would have guaranteed his death.  Guys giving gifts, especially jewelry, has replaced people having sex as the number one indicator they are goners in horror movies.

While we’re on the subject, Betsy Baker does a great job as Linda pretending to be pleased with the magnifying glass necklace.  The film goes the extra step to establish what a dumbass Ash is to think, “You know what would really impress my girl, a little magnifying glass on a silver chain.”  It might have some unspoken significance with them, but I prefer the idea that Ash buys shit gifts and Linda is too nice to tell him.  It comes in handy later, though, so his poor judgment worked out for him in the end.

The movie might not be the “Ultimate Experience in Grueling Horror” as it claims, but it legitimately comes close for the time.  I always forget how rough it is because I’m more familiar with EVIL DEAD 2. I watched that one first and have seen it more often. It has a much lighter (if stranger) tone.  The first EVIL DEAD was strong enough to be labeled a “Video Nasty” in UK.  Now, a lot of films where undeservedly put on the list, but in this case, it’s understandable.  This film has a nasty edge.  As weird as it is, Cheryl’s tree rape scene is no joke.  I can’t keep from wincing every time.  The blood runs black, white, and green, but it is primarily red and there is an awful lot of it.  Demons are stabbed, burnt, hacked up into still wiggling pieces.  There is even a bit of self-cannibalism.  When Ash pulls a stick out of Scotty’s stomach, blood pours out like he’s just uncorked a wine bottle lying on its side.  The famous stop motion scenes of the decaying demons at the end are stand alone effective, but the film goes the extra step of having monster arms literally explode out of the corpses in a final gory transmutation,  While giving Raimi a reason to splash a bucket of blood in Campbell’s face again.
The movie establishes several traditions that continue throughout the series, including the currently airing TV show.  The Bruce Campbell abuse goes without saying, though Ash makes out better in this one than any other installment.  There is a reality bending haunted house freak-out, complete with bleeding walls, similar to scenes in the next two movies, but with its own unique tone.   Perhaps my favorite reoccurring gag is Ash taking time out to not only bury his dead(ish) friends, but build wooden crosses to mark their graves.  The Book of the Dead is present, of course, but it is not called the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, as it is in EVIL DEAD 2 and beyond.  Here it’s called Naturan Demanto, and it looks a little grosser.  This book seems like it could really have been made out of skin.  There is a chainsaw, which Ash never uses, and also a shotgun, single barreled and not cut down like the more famous boomstick.  It’s still fun to see the humble beginnings of Ash’s Deadite killing arsenal.    

Richard DeManincor only had a couple of small roles after this film.  The ladies of EVIL DEAD have had more robust acting careers, though there is a huge gap between 1981 and 2007 when they reunited for a short doc about being the ladies of EVIL DEAD.  Bruce Campbell went on to become a legend, and is perhaps the most reliable and charismatic B-movie actor alive.  Sam Raimi went on to be an insane cult leader in THOU SHALT NOT KILL…EXCEPT and to be horribly mutilated in INTRUDER.  He has also evolved from shooting $350, 000 movies to $350,000,000 movies and has become one of the most famous directors in the world.  He keeps close to the source, though, producing the Ash Vs Evil Dead TV series and directing the first episode.  Under all the fame and success, he’s still just a man who wants to abuse Bruce Campbell. 

EVIL DEAD became a hugely influential film for decades to come.  Raimi tapped into the primal fear of being trapped in a place we know we shouldn’t be in, isolated and vulnerable, surrounded by forces we can’t understand.  It’s no surprise that cabin-in-the-woods movies are so prevalent in horror, leading up to and beyond the movie CABIN IN THE WOODS.  It’s more than just the setting, though.  Raimi and his crew managed to overcome their budgetary and physical limitations to make the most of every second of screen time, and they did it with nothing but determination, innovation, and lots of Karo syrup blood.  While I think Toby Hooper's TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE matches EVIL DEAD for professionalism, pacing, and atmosphere, and delivers more sheer terror, Raimi's creativity makes EVIL DEAD the benchmark for DIY horror filmmaking.  Give it some sugar, baby.

C Chaka 

Friday, October 21, 2016

An Unexpected Beginning: BAD TASTE

So far in my Halloween DIY Horror Rundown (which is a theme I totally planned and did not just notice halfway through, honest), we’ve had an influential classic (BLOOD FEAST) and a scrappy underground curiosity (DARKNESS).  Director H.G. Lewis did pretty well for himself after BLOOD FEAST, enjoying the slightly dubious accolades as the Godfather of Gore, but his film career basically ended with the ‘70s.  Even that little bit of fame eluded Leif Jonker after DARKNESS, he’s yet to make another film (still have my fingers crossed).  A few breakout success stories have come from the dark and hokey world of DIY horror, though.  One of the biggest burst out unexpectedly onto the scene from the twisted Kiwi mind of a bloke named Peter Jackson in the form of 1987’s BAD TASTE.  

The Capsule:
After hearing reports of an alien invasion of the small New Zealand town of Kaihoro, the government sends out an elite four man team of paramilitary goofballs simply known as,The Boys.  They find the town deserted, except for roaming packs of mute, homicidal lunatics.  Barry (Pete O'Herne) discovers the lunatics are something more than they seem when it takes six shots to the head to take one down.  The team’s tech expert, Derek (Peter Jackson), attempts to get information from one of the captured fiends (Peter Jackson, but with a beard), which ultimately results in a near fatal fall from the cliffs.  Meanwhile, scamming collection agent, Giles (Craig Smith), accidentally stumbles into the middle of the madness and is captured by the leader of the crazies.  They turn out to be shapeshifting aliens from an intergalactic fast food corporation with plans to box up Earth’s entire human population for a new line of junk food.  It’s up to Barry, Rambo wannabe Ozzy (Terry Potter), and the cool, capable team leader Frank (Mike Minett), to take on the army of aliens, save Giles, and keep the whole world from becoming happy space meals.  And Derek isn’t going to let a traumatic brain injury stop him from getting in on the carnage.

BAD TASTE is a horror/comedy that skews way more to the comedy side than the horror.  It is filled from beginning to end with goofy gags and cornball humor.  The humor of DEAD ALIVE, which Jackson made five years later, seems subtle and nuanced by comparison.  There is a big emphasis on jokes, most of which, in my opinion, fall flat.  They may be dated, or just speak to a very Kiwi sense of humor.  I do like the way they all earnestly keep plugging away at it, though.  Coupled with the over the top gore gags, it comes off as charmingly stupid.  There are a few bizarre bits that I appreciated, like Derek’s double decker van staged to seem like cardboard cutouts of The Beatles are driving it.  It’s so baffling I couldn’t help but smile.  After Giles is knocked unconscious by an alien cook (who looks a lot like Leatherface, only without a leather face), he wakes up in a giant pot of water with bits of carrots and potatoes floating around, as if he were in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.  I also like the mysterious government agent who calls in The Boys in the beginning.  He is missing a hand, but instead of having a full prosthetic one, he just has a single rubber finger on a rod coming out of the stump.  It’s designed only for pushing buttons.  Later when he’s smoking, he tapes the cigarette to the finger with a Band-Aid.
Jackson filmed BAD TASTE on the weekends with his friends over the course of four years.  Like with DARKNESS, the actors do not remotely look like movie stars.  They are more like the drunks you would see in the background of a bar scene.  Pete O'Herne, who plays Barry, looks like he just woke up from a bender.  What’s worse is that since they were filming for so long, he had to stay with that look for four years!  That's dedication.  Terry Potter’s Ozzy is sort of a Kiwi Rambo with a perm.  He’s the loose cannon who likes to run around with a rocket launcher.  Frank, played by Mike Minett, is the composed leader of the group.  He’s the most sensible, but he does get the movie’s grossest gag.  While in disguise as an alien (by wearing a blue shirt), he is forced to partake in a delicacy of green pudding puked up by another alien.  He puts it off as long as he can, squirming his way to the back of the line, but in the end it turns out to be so tasty he goes back for seconds.  It’s a Green Eggs and Ham message, except with vomit.

The flat out strangest member of the team is the director himself as Derek.  Jackson does not go out of his way to make himself look good.  In fact, with his drooling at the graphic violence and his gleeful torture of aliens, he’s more of a psychopath than even Ozzy.  It only gets worse after he falls off a cliff and has to deal with a flap of skull that keeps flopping down and exposing his brain.  Every stumble causes him to lose a little more gooey grey matter.  Eventually he stuffs a bit of alien brain into his skull to fill the space.  It seems to work, though I’m dubious of its medical accuracy.
The aliens are the real stars of the show, especially the leader, Lord Crumb (Doug Wren).  When in human form, he’s an aristocratic looking old guy, and the only alien who talks.  He refers to his underlings as 3rd class aliens, barely worth mentioning to the board members of Crumbs Crunchy Delights.  Face to face, though, he plays the caring boss.  He gives an impassioned eulogy to the others about the aliens killed in self-defense by The Boys, or as he puts it, “murdered by some real assholes.”   Like Donald Trump, he constantly criticizes people's actions while doing far worse himself.  In fact, if his alien form had been orange and had a mop of crazy straw hair, they could have been twins.

Most of the other aliens behave like doped up mental patients.  They are mostly there to be killed in ridiculous, horribly violent ways.  My favorite is the one who gets broken in half by Derek’s car.  He just lies on the ground, looking perplexed and annoyed at his legless state.  The only thing he can do is bonk pinecones off Derek’s head, ruining his dramatic charge into battle.
After Lord Crumb, Jackson’s alter ego alien gets the most screen time.  His name is Robert.  It’s funny how Jackson is almost unrecognizable as the baby faced Derek, but add a beard and messy hair and he looks exactly like he does today.  Robert is the most goonish of the aliens, which is saying something.  He mimes the finger across the throat gesture when trying to intimidate Giles, except that he is holding a knife and accidentally slices his neck open.  He’s the one who pukes up the delicious alien pudding, by the way, so somewhere there is a paper mache Peter Jackson head with a gaping, green stained mouth.

The gore is just as jokey as the rest of the movie. Robert eats brains out of an exposed skull like it was a cereal bowl.  He even has a spoon.  Heads get pulled off with the spines still attached, which is always appreciated.  One alien accidentally caves in his buddy’s head with a sledgehammer and then gets his arm shot off, so someone is walking around with a hammer in the head and an arm dangling from it.  Points for creativity on that one.  There is a variation on the “reborn” gag that Jackson uses again, more disturbingly, in DEAD ALIVE.  In fact, a lot of the gore is a not-so-dry run for that epic splatterfest.  For some reason, the only thing that really got me was all the dirt and grass that gets into Derek’s brain when he closes his skull flap.  The brain should be a clean zone, in my opinion.
BAD TASTE is about as far from Jackson’s Oscar award winning later work as you can get (unless you count the Muppets-on-crack horror show MEET THE FEEBLES), but you can see the seeds of a great director in there.  It is an ambitious story, especially considering Jackson had to create almost everything himself.  This included the guns, the alien suits, the miniature effects, even the camera equipment.  I’m surprised he didn’t figure out how to make his own film stock.  The props look far better than they should for a nickel and dime production.  The submachine guns he fabricated totally fooled me, they even have detachable magazines and working breaches.  Granted, he had four years to get everything right, but it shows the attention to detail that would allow him to create an entirely believable fantasy world years later.  He also exhibits skill with miniature work and forced perspective, which would come in handy for making small things seem towering or regular things seem hobbit sized.

As with DARKNESS, they do some very irresponsible filmmaking that could have gotten people killed.  The camera operator had to ride on (and fly off of) the hood of the car because they didn’t have a camera mount.  One of the actors almost got a sledgehammer to the face for real.  Peter Jackson has a fight while dangling off a cliff-- an actual cliff-- with no safety harness.  One slip and The King never would have Returned.
I’m not sure why BAD TASTE succeeded in launching Jackson into an ever ascending trajectory as a director when most home grown horror movies fail to catch on.  Perhaps the novelty of it being set in New Zealand helped it stand out.  Perhaps some could see the potential for greatness under all the blood squibs, gross-out gags, and cornball humor.  In any event, BAD TASTE stands as one of the greatest origin stories for a director ever.  It paved the way for his masterpiece, which is of course, DEAD ALIVE.  And those ring movies too, I suppose.

C Chaka

Friday, October 14, 2016

Bloodbath & Beyond: DARKNESS

It may come as a shock to those familiar to this site, but I have my limits.  There are some movies so amateurishly bad even I can’t sit through them.  I have a natural aversion to shot on video (SOV) stuff, because video is such an ugly, flat, and lifeless format (even untreated HD video).  DIY horror can also be hard to take.  Often, it’s just a bunch of bored gorehounds whose idea of a movie is stitching together a bunch of repetitious, blood drenched murders over a skeletal plot.  You can only see fake intestines pulled out so many times before it loses its impact.  On the other hand, I’m a sucker for an ambitious, creative story, no matter how cheaply done or successfully accomplished.  A shining example is the late ‘80’s vampire splatterpunk epic, DARKNESS.

The Capsule:
After witnessing a violent slaughter at a convenience store (which extends into his family’s trailer park), Tobe (Gary Miller) hits the road to track down Liven (Randall Aviks), the bloodsucker responsible for the carnage.  Along the way, he must wipe out all the goth metal vampire dens Liven leaves in his wake.  Things may be a little more than this shotgun toting teen can handle when he catches up with lord vamp.  Liven has created a small army of the undead, and Tobe must team up with a batch of aimless stoners in order to survive the night.  For in this small, unnamed Kansas town, Death walks the streets in acid-washed jeans.

I first heard about Leif Jonker’s DARKNESS in the mid ‘90s in the pages of Film Threat magazine.  It wasn’t a review, just a blurb in the back with a single, phenomenally gross picture.  The movie had the legendary cult status that came from inaccessibility.  A “I knew a guy whose brother’s friend had seen this tape…” kind of thing.  Various crappy looking VHS cuts floated around the horror underground since 1993, but it was finally made widely available (and viewable) when the restored DVD special edition was released in 2006.  This is when I finally saw it.  It lived up to the hype.

For those who watched Kevin Smith’s first film, CLERKS, and thought everyone looked too Hollywood, this movie is for you.  It is dead on in its portrayal of small town suburban teens in the late ‘80s (it was shot in ’88 and 89).  If I didn’t know it was shot in the Midwest, I would have been sure some of those kids went to high school with me.  I owned the exact same Hard Rock CafĂ© tee shirt that one of the main characters wears.  If you were a teen in those years, so did you.  One of the kids actually looks (and acts) like a prototype of Jay of Jay and Silent Bob fame.   One of the advantages of this totally average looking cast is that there is no guessing who is going to be a survivor.  The playing field is wide open.  It also avoids the standard horror movie caste system (the Jock, the Nerd, the Party Girl, the Nice Girl, etc.), making it really feel like anyone could go at any moment.  

A lot of the undead hoard is taken from Kansas’ apparently abundant pool of goth metal Fangoria readers.  They saved a lot of money on make-up, since most of those kids were trying to look like vampires to begin with.  I counted at least three different people in Iron Maiden tee shirts.  Some of these guys went all out, looking absolutely thrilled to be covered in fake blood.  There is also a wide selection of distinctly late ‘80s suburban punk/industrial hairdo to be seen.  It is interesting on an anthropological level.

Aside from few adult exceptions, this is solely a teenaged opera.  It’s almost like CHILDREN OF THE CORN, except that they try to pass off kids in inappropriate professions.  The girl playing the cop in the opening looks like she is just out of middle school.  The story also has that kind of romantic, “us against the world” feel that only a teenager would write.  When Tobe’s family is killed, he hits the road, alone, looking to take down the vampire responsible.  I don’t think it ever occurs to him to tell the cops, or perhaps just stay the fuck away from the vampire who slaughtered dozens of people in front of his eyes. In the end, when [SPOILER] Liven gets away, the traumatized survivors who just barely escaped death load into a gun filled Civic hatchback and head after him.  There is zero consideration given to school, jobs, other family, money, or perhaps going to the hospital.  I think they changed clothes, at least.  I know the adults aren’t going to believe their crazy vampire story, but they should at least leave a note.  The entire town was wiped out.  That’s going to raise questions.

Also, no one seems that broken up over the death of their parents.  They get more emotional over losing someone they just met an hour ago.  Kids today, or 30 years ago, such ingrates. 
The movie plays fast and loose with the vampire rulebook.  Vampires can be killed by sunlight, holy water (carried in a two liter Coke bottle), or normal bullets (or machetes) to the heart.  Also by having their heads explode.  People who are bitten will turn into vampires in anywhere from several minutes to 30 seconds after the bite.  These vampires have no interest in subtlety or deception.  They are practically zombies, running straight towards any warm body.  Most of them don’t have fangs, so they compensate by using guns, knives, and power tools.  They also don’t have much regard for self-preservation.  None of them seems to realize they should avoid sunlight until they are all melting in a field.  This is why there needs to be vampire orientation classes.  Liven is the only one smart enough to burrow into the ground to avoid being cooked.

Another great thing about this movie is that all the time of day text counts down to sunset (11 Minutes Until Sunset, 28 Minutes Until Sunrise, Three Days Later and 1 Hour Until Sunset, etc.).

Like everything in DARKNESS, the gore effects are amateurish.  They make up for it in sheer volume.   It doesn’t hit the dizzying heights of DEAD ALIVE, but it comes close.  Every penny of the movie’s $5,000 budget must have gone to fake blood, squibs, and latex.  The climactic vampire melt down must have used a pumper truck worth of blood.  

Calling these practical effects is a bit of an understatement.  It’s not to say they aren’t impressive, though.  The director had an ingenious method for achieving the exploding head gags (it held the record for the most exploding heads in a movie at the time).  They built a model head, filled it with blood, and shot it with a shotgun from off screen.  Again, this is a testament to the dedication, ingenuity, and stupidity of teenage filmmaking.  It didn’t stop there.  One scene has a vampire chasing the hero down a flight of stairs with a working chainsaw.  I’m astounded this didn’t turn into an accidental snuff film.

This was director Leif Jonker’s only film, which is a down right shame.  DARKNESS cannot be considered high art, but compared to what a bunch of teenagers normally come up with on a $5,000 budget, it is pretty remarkable.  Jonker has a good eye for dramatic staging.  The shot of Liven rising from the earth at sunset is intercut with the chilling stare of a lifeless girl’s unblinking eye.   It’s surprisingly effective.  Jonker gives nods to his cinematic influences.  Bits of sound design and camera work have a Sam Raimi feel, some locations echo Argento, the minimalist score (when not pelting out death metal) sounds a bit like Luci’s ZOMBIE.  Alas, it took all his efforts just to get DARKNESS out to the world, and his proposed sequel, VAMPIRE FEROX (!), never materialized.  The cast grew up into regular non acting people, though judging from the DVD special features, everyone seems to have very fond memories of running around town at night, covered in blood and shooting guns (hopefully with blanks).  I’m glad to have this one, at least, but I’ll always be curious to know if Jonker could have topped himself.  

Worse yet, it means that Liven is still out there somewhere.  I can only hope there will group of angsty, reckless teens around to take him on.      

C Chaka