Pledge Night (1990)

OCTOBER 10, 2019

GENRE: SLASHER, SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: BLU-RAY (OWN COLLECTION)

Since original slasher movies were no longer really hitting theaters by the late 80s, the few that were still being made (more or less exclusively for the video market) tend to be a bit "off" in one way or another. The lack of having to care about mainstream appeal, the drive to do something different in a genre few were still paying attention to... there were several reasons why these films don't bother to stick to the proven formula. And with Freddy escaping the pack to become the most commercially successful of the horror icons (hitting his box office peak in 1987-88), it's no surprise that the killer of Pledge Night, Sid (played by Joey Belladonna from Anthrax) is cut from similar cloth, i.e. he's horribly burned and has a tendency to say something "funny" before and/or after a kill.

But again, the movie's carving its own path, so he also doesn't show up for almost an hour (there are two killers - a crazed pledge at first, then Sid). The elements are all there for a standard kind of slasher movie; our protagonists are the pledges for a fraternity, on their final night of hazing before being sworn in as brothers, and the "little sisters" are hanging around to prepare the food and other things they need to do for their oft-disgusting trials - the fodder is established quite quickly. But writer/producer Joyce Snyder was more interested in showing what frat hazing was like than the killer stuff, despite the objections of director/editor Paul Ziller, making it come off as more of a comedy as there's almost nothing to even hint at this being a horror movie in the first 40 minutes or so. Naturally, that might be too much to ask for some folks.

In fact, even though it's a standard "victim of a prank comes back" type of backstory, they don't even show you that part until quite a ways into the runtime, as opposed to the opening scene like pretty much every other revenge slasher like this, which could have bought them some time. And with the relatively large cast, the late start for the carnage means the killer works his way through everyone fairly quickly once he finally gets going, so don't hope for much suspense or chase scenes (it's been a dire week for well paced slashers here at HMAD). It's almost like they just wanted to make a movie about hazing and got forced to add some horror elements in the last week of production.

That said, the hazing half of the movie actually kind of works on its own, despite the lack of slashing. Per Snyder, they're all real things that frat pledges have to go through, and they never make it look particularly fun - sleeping on the hard floor with no blankets, digesting things that probably shouldn't be digested, etc. There's even a bit where they pour honey on the pledges' faces and then drop cockroaches on them - and yes it's actually done for real on camera, making it the most horrifying thing in the movie by far. And it's not just a string of dares; they occasionally have to pep talk one another to get through the next step, allowing the movie to actually humanize (slightly) a frat guy, which is no easy task. The humor is a little dated of course, but it's earnest and in line with frat comedies of the 80s, so there's a sincerity that I found charming. And while they aren't exactly "woke" they're not horrible human beings either - only the head guy who was carrying out some of the harsher punishments (including an ass-branding) fell into "I want to see this guy die" territory; the others were all more or less in that sweet spot of "I don't love this guy so much that I'll be sad when he dies but I'm not rooting for his death either."

So it's a shame that Sid (the killer) doesn't have any real motive for killing them specifically, as they weren't the ones who killed him 20 years earlier. With the Freddy influence apparent I guess it's more of a "revenge on their kids" kinda deal, but with the only parent we see being the mother to the one person Sid doesn't want to harm (for very obvious plot reasons), if that was the intent it doesn't land. It actually worked better when it was Dan, the aforementioned first killer who is just a frat guy who snapped and started offing his brothers. With the simple "he's crazy" plot, it all works just fine - but suddenly Sid just tears through Dan's body (think Freddy's Revenge), and it's like you're watching the sequel already, where the human killer had been offed so they had to go the supernatural route for part 2.

Had the movie been paced normally, this might have worked just fine, but it's like we waited too long for Dan to start killing as is, only for him to be unceremoniously removed from the film in favor of a different killer. It feels like a bit of a reset, so by the time Sid hits his own groove, the movie's basically about to end. I wish Ziller had put his foot down and gotten to the horror sooner - I think this would be easier to recommend if not for Snyder (who put up the money as well) insisting that they basically make two different movies and stitch them together out of nowhere at the halfway point. Closest comparison I could make is From Dusk Till Dawn, but at least there the vampire twist was basically another obstacle between Seth and freedom - this lacks that kind of character journey to keep following.

Vinegar Syndrome's disc looks quite good and has some nice extras, so existing fans shouldn't be disappointed. It lacks a commentary unfortunately, but Ziller, Snyder, and some of the cast all appear in lengthy interviews, and there's a quick piece on how the shooting locations look today, plus the trailer, which unsurprisingly plays up the horror stuff as if it was a throughline for the entire movie as opposed to its final 25 minutes or so. Luckily, I was warned that it takes a while to get going, so I didn't mind it too much - I was more disappointed that the slasher stuff wasn't all that great once it finally started. It's kind of like Killer Party in that respect, but at least that movie's weirdo nonsense (not to mention earlier introduction of the supernatural plot) kept it better paced overall. So I dunno, it's kind of amusing, and there's nothing particularly bad about it, but it never fully finds its footing either. Your call!

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

The Prey (1983)

OCTOBER 8, 2019

GENRE: SLASHER
SOURCE: BLU-RAY (SCREENER DISC)

The problem with my ongoing quest to see every slasher film produced in the 1980s is that I've seen all the ones that are good, I think - because otherwise I would have been compelled enough to see them by now, right? But at least those old ones that slipped through the cracks can usually offer something interesting, unlike a modern slasher shot for roughly the same money, on someone's iPhone, with After Effects blood FX. Such is the case with The Prey, which was shot in 1979 but not released until 1983, and has two versions available on Arrow's special edition Blu-ray - I remember reading somewhere along the line that it was a pretty dull entry in the "campers in the woods get killed by a mountain mutant" slasher sub-sub-genre, but I didn't know how wacky its production was, and learning about that was probably more entertaining than the film.

In fact I learned some of the backstory inadvertently, as soon as I popped the disc in. Since I got "check discs", which are essentially DVD-Rs with no labeling of use to anyone, and it's a two disc set, I grabbed one of the discs marked "The Prey" with a bunch of meaningless numbers after it, only to be greeted with a message saying that this was the international cut that the director didn't approve of, which seemed odd to me until I realized I had probably put the second disc in and should get the other. But I was already intrigued, so while the other one was loading up I looked online and saw that the "international cut" ran about 17 minutes longer and added a lengthy flashback that explained the killer's origins, while also removing "most of the film's nature footage". This of course meant nothing to me yet since I hadn't seen the film, so I filed the info away and didn't think much of it...

...until about four minutes into the film, after I had seen what seemed like the 47th shot of a wildlife critter (sometimes stock footage, sometimes seemingly shot for the production). It was then that I realized that maybe this so-called international cut might be the superior one, but I had to know what my slasher enthusiast ancestors dealt with in theaters or cable back then, and put myself in their shoes. The wildlife footage never ceased or even slowed as the film progressed - you're never more than about 30 seconds from another shot of an owl, or a vulture, or a bug, or just some flowers or trees. It's clearly padding since the film still doesn't even hit the 80 minute mark (credits run a bit slow too), but the secondary excuse is to try to draw a parallel between the predator/prey relationship between animals in the woods and the killer with his victims. It kind of works, but its minimal impact would be the same if there was just a handful of such shots bookending the film instead of several minutes' worth of the runtime.

Director Edwin Brown doesn't just rely on animals to get the movie up to feature length - we're also treated to things like the ranger character tuning his guitar, or his boss trying a sandwich, plus any number of (seemingly improvised, poorly) scenes where our heroes chitchat. There's nothing wrong with the blather in itself - the problem is that these practically muttered bits of dialogue are the focus of the scene, as opposed to something we are overhearing to show how oblivious the characters are to the dangerous killer watching them as they yammer on. The killer's presence is always announced with a heartbeat motif and POV shots, so we know when he's there or when we're just suffering through amateur actors trying their best to recreate the sort of "So you DO think about things like that, Laurie!" dialogue Brown half-remembered from Halloween a year before he shot this fluff.

As for the kills, Brown makes the rookie mistake of stringing most of them together in a brief span (maybe four minutes?) near the end of the film, instead of spacing them out, but I guess I can forgive that since Halloween was the only game in town at the time and they weren't exactly spread evenly. The difference is that Myers' presence and trick playing kept that film engaging and suspenseful - the laundry room sequence in Halloween is just as scary as any kill, after all - but this movie lacks that sort of thing, so it's just dull. At least the kills are kind of fun; there's an axe murder, a guy rappelling down a cliffside only to have his progress sped up by the killer cutting his rope, and - my favorite - one of the girls running, only to trigger a trap that loops her upside down and slams her into a tree, smashing her skull. It's clumsily staged, but since the one who got killed is more recognizable than the other, AND she neglected to have sex with her boyfriend earlier when the others were fooling around, so I thought she might be the final girl, making it a surprise that she died at all, let alone got the most memorable death.

Despite not loving the film by any means, I was still curious about the longer cut, so I watched it a couple hours later and was surprised to discover that it's actually a better version, and almost wish I had watched it first after all. Yes, it's longer, but they cut all of the animals out, which makes the film seem less aimless; it's still too slow but in a way that feels more like a failed attempt at building suspense as opposed to simply padding the film out however possible. The reason it ends up longer despite removing all of the padding is because it presents a 20 minute flashback sequence that explains who the killer was and how he ended up being burned - but the real reason for the sequence is because the UK distributor wanted more sex in the film. So they cast this sequence with adult film actors, and while the sex scenes aren't exactly hardcore, they're certainly more graphic than one might expect from a traditional slasher of the era. Ironically, Brown had come from an adult film background and was hoping to show he could do other things with this one, only for an uncredited filmmaker to go ahead and practically turn it into one behind his back.

It's also ironic that the director's preferred version is the weaker of the two, in my opinion. But if you love his cut (or both of them) you will be ecstatic to know how jam-packed Arrow's Blu is. Interviews with most of the surviving cast, two commentary tracks (plus an audio interview with Brown that is presented as a commentary), a THIRD cut that basically adds the gypsy/sex sequence to the version that has all of the animal footage, a Q&A from a convention screening, a visit of the shooting locations... even if I flat out loved the movie I don't know if I'd be able to get through it all in a timely manner. I've said it before, and I'll say it again here: every film deserves a special edition like this, so that the people who love it can get as much behind the scenes info as they desire. I may not be able to count myself among this movie's fanbase (it does exist; the convention-based bonus features prove it), but I'm happy for them that they don't have to go without, especially for a film that never even made it to DVD here in the US. Good on you, Arrow.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

The Lodge (2019)

SEPTEMBER 28, 2019

GENRE: PSYCHOLOGICAL, THRILLER
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (BEYOND FEST)

Having missed the first few nights of Beyond Fest due to unexpected medical issues (bleeding ulcer, I'm OK now I think), I finally got to make my first trip there for The Lodge, which is an unusual way to kick things off. The fest routinely programs wild/outlandish fare (both new and old), and this film is a "slow burn" type that keeps its insanity confined to the mind of one of its characters - the sort of thing I'd expect to watch on a quiet night at home, not at the same festival that frequently employs the use of T-shirt cannons and eating contests. That said, it was an intriguing and mostly successful example of its kind, not to mention the best new Hammer film since Wake Wood, and will do well with folks who don't mind their horror to be a little on the moody and atmospheric side.

Riley Keough stars as Grace, a woman who is about to marry a man with two children from a previous marriage. The kids naturally don't like her all that much, so the dad (Richard Armitage) figures maybe spending the holidays at his cabin will help them bond a bit - especially during a three day period right before Christmas Day that he has to return to the city for some work matters. Naturally, things don't go too swimmingly - a snowstorm confines them to the lodge, which then loses power to boot. And worst of all - one morning they wake up to find all of their belongings missing, with Grace suspecting her will-be stepchildren of doing it on purpose to drive her crazy. But as it gets colder and their supplies run out, could the kids really be to blame when they're at risk as well? Is someone else in the house with them, or are supernatural forces the real culprit?

Naturally I won't spoil that for you, but I will say that up until the point we have our answer, the film works terrifically. Keough (no stranger to slow burn/isolated thriller fare, having appeared in the very undercooked It Comes At Night) has a tough role to play and she handles it well, as Grace isn't just the usual "stepmom" kind of character who oversteps her boundaries and needs to prove herself. No, she's actually the lone survivor of a Heaven's Gate-style cult led by her father (so essentially she's Jennifer Rubin from Bad Dreams!), and clearly hasn't fully adjusted to normal life yet - established by some medication she needs to take, which is of course among the things that go missing along with the rest of their stuff. So as her mind cracks even further, she switches from protagonist to antagonist, as we fear for the lives of the children - all the while remembering that they may be the true villains all along.

And it's easy enough to believe they may be, as this is from Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala. They are the team that gave us the evil child movie Goodnight Mommy, and the film shares a number of similarities - up to and including spending the entire movie wondering if we can trust its lead actress. Thankfully their approach has improved; I enjoyed Goodnight Mommy but my overall opinion was stymied by the way they handled their key twist, as I never could tell if it was even SUPPOSED to be one (in that it was so obvious to me by the film's twenty minute mark I wasn't sure if it was something they were even trying to hide). Here, it's clear that they don't want you to be that far ahead, allowing for a little more variety in the action and a little less time spent wondering how I as a viewer was supposed to be taking in this or that scene, so overall I found it to be a better film.

Unfortunately, once they do tell us exactly what happened, the movie kind of fizzles. As with Us, it almost might have been better to leave things unexplained, because by opening that Pandora's Box I found myself left with more questions (chiefly among them: what exactly was ______ hoping to accomplish?), and less engaged with the film's climax than I should have been. It's not that the answer is bad on its own, it's just that it's not particularly well developed, and even somewhat contradicts earlier information (can't really explain that one without spoiling, so I'll just say to consider an early scene involving a computer). There's also a curious lack of information about how Grace ended up with Armitage's character - the kids say she's a psychopath "from Dad's books" but his job is so vague I'm not even sure if they mean a book he wrote or a book he owned (and if he's an author, what kind of backwards ass movie writer is this where he has to LEAVE his isolated cabin to get some work done?).

But until then, they really had me hooked in - for proof, I stayed awake the entire time even though I was still very much low energy thanks to my hospital stay (and, as a result of the prognosis, I certainly wasn't partaking in anything sugary or with caffeine). The production design alone made the film worth watching - as with Hereditary, there's a bit of a dollhouse motif that spreads to the real sets, as everything seems just slightly off (in this case, hallways seem unnaturally narrow, while the bedrooms have awkward amounts of space between furniture), and Thimios Bakatakis' camera almost never stops gliding and slow zooming its way around the areas. And it pays tribute to its snowbound horror masters in both overt (they literally watch The Thing) and subtle (Grace's dog is named Grady, heh). Also, Keough sports some very excellent sweaters - as my rare chances to wear my sweaters are the thing I hate most about living in California, I find myself increasingly drawn to people wearing them in movies, the way wannabe gangsters idolize The Godfather and what not.

It's a shame Neon won't be releasing the film until February; its snowy look and Christmas setting would sell more tickets in November or December I'd think, but what do I know? It's the one thing I dislike about reviewing festival films - by the time it's out, I might forget a few things and not have the time for a second watch, so more people will be seeing it and I'll have trouble remembering what they're referring to, especially when by spoiler law I had to be vague with my review and won't be able to consult it for any specific reminders. The blunder in the last reel isn't crippling; it isn't the first and won't be the last movie that couldn't quite maintain its allure in the home stretch, especially among these slow burn types. Here's hoping the marketing doesn't spoil its surprises (the below trailer doesn't give too much away, though as always it's better to go in blind for these kind of films) and that it finds the folks who will enjoy it - and that Franz & Fiala's next film manages to make its ambiguous nature pay off in the end, instead of unnecessarily restraining it.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

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