It’s Thanksgiving again, the time of year we come together to celebrate awkward family interactions. To enjoy good food, catch up with those we haven’t seen for a year, and to kind of wish we were doing something else. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to be around people you love and to enjoy their company, for a while. Group festivities like this have a very specific expiration period, and Thanksgiving generally exceeds it by two to four hours (individual families may very). The pleasantries wane, the crazy opinions come out, and everything goes off the rails. But the next time Uncle Murray brings up “what’s really wrong with this country,” just think of 1987’s BLOOD RAGE (AKA SLASHER, AKA NIGHTMARE AT SHADOW WOODS). It will put your Thanksgiving woes into perspective.
Frustrated single mom Maddy (Louise Lasser) is just looking for some action with her date at the local drive-in when her twin boys, Terry (Mark Soper) and Todd (Mark Soper), wander off to get into mischief. Unfortunately, Terry’s idea of mischief is hacking up some dude with a hatchet then blaming it on his now catatonic brother. Ten years later, Terry is a handsome, popular young man with well-coifed hair while Todd is an emotionally regressed loon in a mental institution. He has very messy hair. Terry is home for Thanksgiving dinner when his mom announces that she is getting remarried, which is just the thing to get Terry’s homicidal jealousy blood raging again. Conveniently for him, Maddy gets word that Todd has escaped from the institution and is headed their way. Terry embarks on a hugely excessive murder spree, planning to once again blame it all on his brother and remain the sole apple in his mother’s eye.
There is an ingredient in older horror movies—particularly those from the ‘80s—that I dearly miss, characters behaving the way no rational human being would. Not just the over-the-top villains, I mean everyone. The things that the “normal” characters say and do can be more outrageous than the killings and the quips. These days, movies are so scientifically structured that you can anticipate every beat and response. They may have their satisfying moments, but they are predicable. It is nice to be baffled every once in a while. My favorite movies are the ones that perpetually make me ask “Wait… what?” Obviously everything is just to move the plot along and set up some sweet kills, but I find it more fun to wonder what the characters were possibly thinking when they make these ridiculous statements or actions. Some (most) might just call this poor writing, acting, or directing. I call it magic.
BLOOD RAGE is filled to the brim with this kind of magic. Why, for instance, when Todd runs away from the institution, does his doctor and her assistant try to hunt him down (with a tranquilizer gun!) rather than, say, calling the police? And why do they split up and search the grounds rather than just hanging out in the one place they are certain he is going to? I made up a whole backstory to explain that.
There are plenty of strange reactions that have nothing to do with the plot, too. The traditional horror movie horny couple, Gregg and Andrea, are about to get it on in her room when they suddenly decide to stop cold and play an elaborate prank on Terry’s virgin girlfriend, Karen (it involves make up effects and everything). Then they go play night tennis (not a euphemism, actual tennis). Then they go to the pool. To have sex. Not in the pool, just at the pool. You know, the average date night routine. Plus, Gregg thinks it is super awesome that Terry’s lunatic brother is on the loose, and can’t understand why no one else sees it as cool. I think he tries to give Terry a high five.
Speaking of Terry, it has to be noted off the bat that Mark Soper looks (and acts) exactly like Val Kilmer. This was filmed around the same time Kilmer was doing REAL GENIUS, and they probably could have switched sets every once in a while without anyone noticing. They are like the acting version of stigmatic twins. Soper even brings Kilmer’s cocky, manic, kinda smarmy energy to BLOOD RAGE.
There is in fact, very little rage going on. Terry is having an absolute fucking blast with his night of terror. The trigger for his vicious killing spree seems to be jealousy over his mom remarrying, but I have the feeling he was just patiently waiting for a chance to cut loose and frame his brother again. Ten years of pent up homicidal urges are coming out in style. The clearest indicator is that instead of just killing the rival for his mom’s love, he goes after everyone in the entire apartment complex. Offing the fiancée was just a bonus.
Of course, he is aided by his seemingly supernatural aura of trustworthiness. Seriously, absolutely no one picks up that he’s the killer, even when he is covered in blood and holding a machete. He just casually talks his way out of everything. “Oh, this is Todd’s—he’s killing people all over the complex.” Jackie, the hospital attendant who is hunting Todd, even confides to Terry that he doesn’t think his brother killed the guy at the drive-in. That means, by process of elimination, that Terry did, but he keeps chatting like they are having a beer at the bar. Until Terry stabs him. They never say what Terry is studying in school, but has to be political science. Or hypnotism.
You can tell Terry has had murder on his mind for a long time by the inventive ways he slaughters everyone. Brad, the fiancée, gets his hand chopped off (still holding a beer can) and his head cleaved in two. One guy is decapitated and his head is strung up in front of an apartment door peephole, so his date gets a shock when she lets him in. In addition to his machete, Terry has a stash of additional weapons, including a spear gun, a full length hand saw, and a serving fork. You know, because it’s Thanksgiving. He even has a Thanksgiving catchphrase, “that’s not cranberry sauce,” which he really likes, because he says it three different times. Statistically speaking, this is probably the only opportunity he’ll have to say it, so might as well get the most out of it.
In addition to all the fun he’s having as Terry, Soper gives a dual performance (or a triple, if you count impersonating Val Kilmer). He is less dynamic as the fragile, childlike Todd, but much more sympathetic/pathetic. Todd and Maddy’s pumpkin pie smushing therapy session is particularly great, as is when he tries to put his doctor back together after he finds her bisected in the woods.
He also has a sweet and incredibly awkward relationship with Terry’s feisty girlfriend, Karen (Julie Gordon). She spends most of the third act running for her life, but she does become the protector to both Todd and a neighbor’s baby (in most movies they use a baby sized dummy for the action scenes, in this one she just lugs around a real baby). She doesn’t get to kill Terry, but she does smack him in the dick with a princess phone, so that’s something.
Louise Lasser’s Maddy is a bad mother, but a fantastic character. Her slow breakdown is almost as fun as Terry’s enthusiastic killing spree. Lasser is most famous for her deadpan delivery as the title character of the ‘70’s soap opera spoof Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. The disappointed and delusional Maddy is the role she was born to play, though. She is the very definition of a repressed housewife. Armed with a forced smile, longing eyes, and a perpetual glass of wine, she is obsessed with maintaining the illusion of a happy, normal family. Never mind the fact that her one son is an emotionally stunted basket case and the other has a murderously strong oedipal complex.
When the wholesome façade starts to crack, Maddy copes by using the classic weapon of the repressed housewife, drunken house cleaning. My favorite Maddy moment is when she is sitting on the floor in front of the open refrigerator, stuffing her face with Thanksgiving leftovers in a stupor. Her power of denial is formidable. She spends much of the movie on the phone with the operator desperately asking why her fiancée isn’t picking up (the real reason: he’s dead). She knows something is very wrong in the apartment complex, but she won’t walk the 100 yards to his office because she doesn’t want to see that something is very wrong. It’s better to blame the operator.
For a movie that is not interested in subtlety, it’s odd that there is nothing overtly incestuous about Maddy and Terry’s relationship. She is desperate to have a man in her life, and wears an uncomfortably provocative dress, but there is nothing particularly creepy with the way she dotes on Terry. The only indicator, aside from Terry going apeshit crazy whenever he sees his mom kiss someone, is when Todd, pretending to be his brother, puts his drunken mother to bed. Something about that inebriated embrace, lasting just a few seconds too long, suggests that Terry isn’t the only one acting inappropriately.
The ending is a bit of a bummer. [SPOILER] Maddy wakes up from her denial after seeing the hacked up body of her fiancée. She finds Terry, who is just about to kill Todd and Karen, and shoots him. Hugging the nearly drowned Todd, she apologizes and promises that nothing will come between them again. It’s very heartfelt. Then she calls him Terry. When Todd informs her of her mistake, by way of psychotically chanting “I’m Todd!” over and over, she shoots herself in the head. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
It would be funny if, years later, Todd meets up with Phoebe Cates’ character from GREMLINS and they compared traumatic holiday experiences. I think Todd has the edge.
P.S. – This movie also features Ted Raimi as a men’s room condom dealer. I felt I had to mention that.