Category Archives: Slasher

Don’t Hang Up 2016

Pranksters are a staple of the horror genre. As most monsters and/or serial killer will need a bunch of teens to butcher then those teens better have some kind of character trait. You can have the jock, the nerd, the slutty girl and of course someone who likes nothing more than pulling hilarious pranks on the rest of the gang. And when I say hilarious I mean not funny in the slightest. The good thing about these fool makers is that they are often the first to be garrotted, beheaded or disemboweled by Jason Voorhees or whoever. The audience are happy to see these imbeciles die because they are annoying and their pranks are annoying too.

So making a film purely about pranksters is both a good idea and a terrible one. On the one hand no one else has made a horror movie like this, but on the other we have endure more and seemingly endless “jokes” at other people’s expense. Of course that is the point: we’re not meant to like these guys, but a whole movie with them front and centre? It might be too much.

Brady and Sam are the jesters in question. Despite both looking like male models who could be out getting laid relentlessly, they spend their sad spare time making prank calls to unsuspecting good folk and tell them that their home is being invaded or that their wives have been killed in a car crash. Laugh out loud stuff like that. Problems arise when they get a return phone call and the creepily voiced person (who sounds just like the killer in Scream) calls up and starts to turn the tables on them.

Damien Mace and Alexis Wajsbrot (how come all directors seem to work in twos nowadays?) do a damn fine job of shooting what is essentially a film entirely set in one location. We get some interesting camera moves rolling around Sam’s house like a budget version of David Fincher’s Panic Room. It helps set up the geography of the location which is important because there is a lot of going in and out of doors later on in the film and I really wouldn’t know what was going on without it.

Or maybe I wouldn’t have cared. Obviously Don’t Hang Up wants these characters to get their just desserts (or does it?) however I wouldn’t have minded at least one person to root for. Brady and Sam are the very embodiment of the word “pratts” and having to tolerate their winy existence for an hour and a half was more than most audiences deserve. There is a girlfriend who shows up but even she is pretty unsympathetic. Maybe this is harking back to the bad old days of the Saw movies where everyone was awful and they all got what they deserved but I’m not in any rush to return to that scenario.

Or maybe it’s just me. The film is very well made, the lads who play the two main characters are good actors (which could not always be said about the pranksters in the Friday the 13th movies) and the ending is at least satisfying.

More so than the ending of this review certainly…

 

Prom Night 1980 Vs Prom Night 2008

When it comes to remakes probably the best approach is to take a movie that was kind of shit in the first place and remake that. Then the only way is up: there weren’t that many fans in the first place* so the hate will be limited, and if the orignal was garbage but there was an inkling of a good story there you can use that as a starting point and make a better film.

Well that’s the theory. Or you could do as the producers of the Prom Night remake did: just take the title and setting and make a different film all together, albeit one that is equally as bad as the original.

Let’s face facts though, when you think of the best of the slashers from the early eighties, even when you limit it to the slashers with dates/holidays in their titles, Prom Night is not the first film that springs to mind. The reasons for this are multiple but the main ones are that it takes way too long for any slashing to begin and it is deeply dull leading up to said slashing. Actually its not exactly heart racing when the killing finally does happen but at least Jamie Lee Curtis is in it.

Why, exactly, is Jamie Lee Curtis in Prom Night? Obviously Curtis had yet to break away from the Scream Queen label she had helped to create two years earlier in Halloween, so you could see why she was popping up in the likes of The Fog and Terror Train but at least they were decent films with good scripts and directors. Prom Night is dull as watching the British Parliament TV channel on a Friday morning when the chambers are empty because everyone’s still at the commons bar drinking cheap booze and having fisticuffs.Before anything interesting happens we have to spend a lot of time with Curtis and her friends stumbling around high school being boring. There is an opening of the I Know What You Did Last Summer variety when a bunch of children accidentally kill a girl in an abandoned house. This will obviously will lead to the revenge killing spree but it’s not hugely exciting or original stuff. And Curtis has to wade through all this acting like a teenager whilst looking far to old to be in school. She dresses like she has a job in New York City so sticks out from the rest of the cast even more. Its like she said, I’ll do this film but only if I can stress my mature side by wearing modern office fashion.

What Prom Night does ask of its audience is to guess who-done-it, even before anyone starts doing it.  There are multiple potential murderers from disgruntled parents to escaped lunatics and, to give Prom Night it’s due, I did not guess who the killer would be. This killer had a certain style – if you can call an all in black number with a black sparkly sequinned balaclava stylish. The sparkles are a particularly odd choice as I’ve never found the shimmering mermaid look particularly scary or threatening. It must be something to do with discotheque because there is a lot of disco here. The prom night itself is basically one big homage to Saturday Night Fever, from the light up floor tiles to Curtis spinning around the dance floor whilst staring at the camera. In fact Curtis does get to show of some pretty decent dance moves. Maybe she took the role with promises of horror themed choreography, if so then it was a job well done… Unlike the killings themselves which again like so many of the other Friday the 13th rip-offs, fails to deliver on what made that film so successful in the first place.

What we have got, and the disco is just one part of this, is a lot of padding. There are numerous scenes of characters preparing for the prom, we spend far too much time with various red herrings which are a total waste of time and there is a Carrie-style sub plot that literally gets cut off halfway through and goes nowhere. Oh, and Leslie Nielsen is in here (as the head liner no less) but is only in it for about five minutes. This was pre- Airplane and Naked Gun times where he was actually a dramatic actor, but such is his presence that we expect him to say something funny or do something stupid. In fact I laughed several times at him when I wasn’t meant to. Even staring at his dead child was somehow a comedy moment. Poor Nielsen: his early career has forever been retrospectively turned into a farce.

There’s also plenty of time for dubious chat. Curtis is struggling with a prom dress in her bedroom when she turns to see her brother standing at the doorway. “Are you going to get over here and help me, or are you just going to leer?” She asks. “Well I am your brother so I think I’ll just leer,” he replies. Say what now? What is going on here? Why is he perving over his sister or have I just mistaken what leer means. Or maybe the script writers have mistaken it’s definition?  Later, a horny male character is trying to get laid. He says to the girl he is basically forcing himself on when she tries to pull away “if you don’t, I know plenty who will!” This seems to seal the deal for her, not to run away screaming but to say oh okay and relent to some almost certainly bad sex.

All this padding is clearly necessitated by film makers who don’t have enough faith in the slasher story. Admittedly this is because it is slim stuff: masked killer turns up and kills a bunch of youths is essentially your lot for all these films, but by filling the rest of your plot with unnecessary guff makes you slasher less interesting not more. Halloween understood this: it kept the story to the bare minimum – there was character development (to an extent) but it was all either in service to the main plot or happened whilst Michael was watching his victims. Prom Night mostly ignores that it is even a slasher for an hour before we even get to the Prom Night of the title, let alone any of the slashing.

So obviously ripe for a remake. However if anything the 2008 version of Prom Night is loathed even more than the original. This is a shame as it does the opposite of the 1981: after a brief and tense prologue the film starts on the night of the prom with the heroine, Brittany Snow, being picked up to get to the event where all her friends will, and do, die. There´s no hanging up decorations or choosing outfits, its straight to the main event of death.

Proms have clearly changed in the 27 years between the two films. Back in the old days all the proms seemed to be held in the sports hall with some tacky decoration to make the room into some sort of Doctor Who-set version of an underwater palace. By the noughties, and I guess prior to the bank crash, all these kids were having their prom in the fancy ballroom of some upmarket hotel in the heart of down town Los Angeles.

What has not changed is using the same escaped killer trope from one of the sub-plots of the previous film and, indeed, Halloween. This forfeits the who-done-it plotting of the original but unlike Michael Myers this killer is just some ex-model looking chap who´s weak attempt to follow his serial killing forefathers is to disguise himself with a baseball cap. He also manages to get himself a room in the hotel where the prom is going on and much of the film involves the victims mistakenly going into his room so he can kill them with his big knife. He´s a pretty lazy murderer really, he only chases one girl besides Snow, most of the time he just kicks back and, presumably, work his way through the mini bar until the next idiot victim shows up.

At lease having the killer there and killing from the start of the film solves the originals main problem – pace. Prom Night ´08 races along at a breakneck speed and is entertaining enough whilst its going on, even if it doesn´t have anything new to add to the genre. Also without the who-done-it story there’s no room for a Leslie Nelson cameo, which would have livened up things no end.

The remake does, however, break the one cardinal rule of slasher movies – the final girl has to learn to have some grit. Brittany Snow, who has proven herself an able actor in more challenging stuff than this, only gets to play the victim. She is in fear of the guy who killed her family in the prologue the whole way through the film. She barely gets to do any running away, she mostly cowers under beds or in cupboards and screams a lot. This is no way for the final girl to act. Well it is for most of the movie, but at some point she is meant to dig in deep, find her survivor’s instinct and fight back with an axe, shotgun or booby-trapped floor lamp. Instead Snow kicks the killer once whilst scrambling along the floor and that seems like an accident.

It’s left for the investing detective to work out what is going on and rescue the girl, which is not right I tell you! On the positive side said detective is played by Idris Elba, clearly looking for something to fill his time what with The Wire coming to an end. He probably did it before the final season in the hiatus to kill sometime. He certainly didn’t do it because of the great dialogue or interesting character development because there isn’t anyway. Maybe they paid him well.

Actually I would have thought everyone got paid well, because they spend $20 million dollars on this thing. Twenty. Million. On a slasher, with no stars, big set pieces or visual effects. Someone was having a laugh, all the way to the bank I reckon. Especially as this is about as generic a slasher movie as you could get but without the who-done-it of the original to keep you guessing or a final girl you can root for. Yeah I know I just said earlier that Halloween‘s genius was how simple and stripped down its plot was, and essentially this remake does the same but it doesn’t have an embodiment of evil in a William Shatner mask scaring you to death, it has the embodiment of Elite modelling agency look silly in a cap.

In the battle of original verses remake I’m afraid the losers are both versions, and me for sitting through them. Both had their pluses; the original had disco and the remake was short. Maybe if you combined the two you might have a good yet brief disco slasher. Sadly twenty eight years stand between them,so unless they’re going to make a third version  combining those elements and a Leslie Nielsen cameo before he dies** then please: no more Prom Nights thank you.

 

*Even the worst things in the world have fans. There are a lot of people who like the slasher Madman even though it has no redeeming features at all. And I had an (adult) friend who used to be really into Rolf Harris. I say used to be…

** Apparently he died seven years ago. I missed that. Thanks Leslie for making us laugh, even if it wasn´t intentional.

A clear winner on the poster front though. The original is strong and well designed with the shard of mirror (the killers weapon of choice – let´s hope his gloves are thick enough) showing one of the victims, the killers eyes staring into your soul. Its certainly better than the film, or indeed the 2008 poster which is one of the least interesting and laziest horror posters ever created.

House of Wax 2005

Mainstream horror was in the doldrums come the mid noughties. Between the so called torture porn movies (which had about one idea) between them and the endless remakes the studios put out it seemed like our favourite genre had reached a point of creative bankruptcy. By the time it came to digging back far enough in the libraries to remake the Vincent Price classic House of Wax expectations were pretty much at rock bottom. So much so that the fact that it was a remake didn’t seem to be a selling point at all. Surely the whole idea of a remake was that its familiar name would bring a new audience into the cinemas? Instead Warner Brothers had so little faith in their own brand that the main selling point for the 2005 film was “come and see Paris Hilton die horribly”.

Yes, in a desperate piece of stunt casting, socialite and gossip rag-haunting stick insect Paris Hilton is cast as a sex crazed party goer. It shouldn’t be a big stretch for Hilton but sadly she fails to be convincing in the slightest. I’m not sure why she was such a selling point, people who liked her wouldn’t see a horror movie and those that didn’t like her would do anything to avoid even more Hilton (she was everywhere in 2005) so wouldn’t go and see House of Wax either. Not that she is in it that much, which is a relief, but she’s arguably the worst part of the film.

The other main problem is that House of Wax 2005 has abandoned pretty much everything from the original film bar the title and the wax museum setting and instead gone for, and please stop me if you’ve heard this before, the five friends break down in the middle of nowhere plot. This story is so familiar and done with such little variation from the basic formula that it really brings the whole first third of the film down. There’s even a local hick who could be on vacation with Tucker and Dale. It’s a turgid affair that even the decent cast (other than Hilton) can’t bring to life. Its weird to think that Warner Brothers coughed up $30 million dollars for this nonsense.

Fortunately there is some hope. The prologue is a dazzlingly detailed montage of close ups of some horrific childhood involving good and bad (or more likely mad) twin toddlers at the breakfast table and some poor parenting decisions. It suggests that director Jaume Collet-Serra knows what he’s doing even if he is nobbled by the by-the-numbers set up. That promise pays off in the second and third acts of the movie when we finally reach the House of Wax and the town that it is located in. Wax models have always been creepy and ones which encase real life bodies are more so. Collet-Serra exploits this well, putting across the horror of being encased in hot wax as well as the nightmare of having your flesh torn off as your friends try to rescue you from your candle based entombment.

The twin villains of the film are also pretty good too and its nice that they have a counter part in having a brother and sister who are twins on the victims’ side – although this is never explored as well as it could be. Actually a lot of the more interesting aspects of the characters and back story are garbled through as things rush onto the next wax-based imagery. But even if the script is a little undercooked at least the film does what it says on the tin: literally there is a whole house made of nothing but wax.

Its this house which provides the show stopping moment of the film, as the climatic battle involves the main characters running around the house as it melts into a blubbery mess around them. This scene is a fantastic mix of excellent practical effects and mostly good digital ones as people sink through floors and tear their way through melting walls. Two characters even climb out of through the museum’s front wall with its name on it; so they actually climb through the title of the film. Add into that that as all the wax melts all the previous victims of the evil twins are revealed, and you have some fantastic horror imagery that is as impressive as anything you’ll see in genre cinema. Its a shame that all the good stuff only really happens at the very end but at least it leaves an impression.

Unlike Paris Hilton who leaves no discernible impression at all, although lets give credit where credit is due – the marketing people where right: she does die horribly.

She doesn’t, however, get turned into a wax model like in the poster below and then melted in the big bonfire at the end. This is unlike her acting career which disappeared like that cheap wax that doesn’t drip, it just evaporates into the air as if it had never existed in the first place.

Don’t Go In The Woods 1981

After watching Don’t Go In The Woods  I think the main question we have to ask about the whole Video Nasties debacle is this:

WHAT THE FUCK TORIES?!?!!?

I’m not saying that the-banned-for-many-years Don’t Go In The Woods isn’t gory, because it is. And I’m not saying that it isn’t occasionally offensive, because it is that too. But the gore is of the of the cheapest bucket of red paint variety, and it is only offensive in its stupidity. I realise that over time what was once shocking has become less so, but I cannot believe for a second that anyone who watched this movie back in 1981 was so mortified (or anything other than bemused) that they would call for it’s instant banning. Unless you were in a wheelchair I suppose (I’ll get to that). This leads me to the conclusion that no body bothered watching Don’t Go In The Woods before chucking it on the list.

Right from the beginning it is apparent that the film has some major issues with coverage. A bunch of teens, who I guess were meant to be actors but forgot to learn how to act, are sitting around a campfire being told about the legend of these, them, here woods where a killer lives preying on teens. At least I presume they are being told as you never see the person who is telling them. The camera never cuts to a reverse so you only see the reactions (including one girl staring straight at the lens) not the main character of the scene who is talking. This happens relentlessly throughout the film: a scene in a plane involving the sherif and a pilot. They have a very long (and repetitive) conversation but you never see anything of the pilot other than his back. I thought this was because his character was mysterious and would play a bigger part later. But no, we never see the pilot again…

More coverage madness ensues: a man is strangled to death by his camera bag strap, or is he? He just seems to lean forward for a bit making gurgling sounds. The next shot he is lying at the bottom of a cliff with his (very red) brains splattered all over some rocks. Sure, we can work out what has happened but maybe seeing the strap being thrown around his neck or him actually being pushed off the cliff would have help connect the visual dots.

This isn’t just a question of coverage though, the whole approach to editing and putting scenes or even shots in order seems beyond the film maker’s abilities. The main teen hero bloke of the movie (failing to grasp the importance of The Final Girl trope) frolics about in the water with two girls early on, but then in a later scene the same guy is standing on a cliff watching the girls and HIMSELF in the same water. Either he is having a flashback to happier times or there is some weird time travelling shit going on we, as the audience, are not privy to.

Hey, look this is all just the technical stuff. Don’t Go In The Woods fails in almost every other way too. In design, for example. The killer turns out to be some wild man who lives in the woods and wears beads on his face. There is no explanation as to why he likes the beads or if they mean anything. Certainly if it was to make him look scary then that didn’t work. If it was to add mystery then it could be deemed a success: the mystery being “Why are you wearing beads on your face?!?!” Also this wild man is actually quite small so when hero guy and his female friend return to the woods to get revenge or justice or what-have-you, it is like two healthy middle class folk murdering a little old tramp.

Nothing makes any sense though, and I’m not just talking about characters deciding to wander off by themselves level of sense here. I mean nothing the characters do at all makes the slightest sense:

  • The hero escapes with the girl after failing to defend himself against the tramp with a big stick, but then returns with just the girl and the same big stick to kill him. Why would this strategy work when it failed last time?
  • A couple called Cherry and Dick are having a romantic night in their campervan. But Dick’s idea of romance is stumble about like a drunken madman shouting “let me take care of it, Cherry, oh Cherry. Huuhh?” whilst looking at the floor. Who talks like that? And who has sex with someone clearly that mad?
  • “Its gonna be one of those summers” says a security guard as a girl rollerskates past him down the mountain. Who rollerskates down mountains? And how?
  • When hero bloke and girl escape they say a friend of theirs is still trapped up the mountain with the killer. The sherif notes that the hero might become “a bit irrational with guilt.” Then said sherif goes off for a hearty breakfast to think about that and other things – not to sort out the guys guilt by going to rescue the girl or catch the killer or any other sherif type things.

Its not just the weird behaviour which is demented, the sound is mad as birds too. The music, if you can call it that, mostly consists of bells, whistles and other odd noises. A rattle snake rattles for no reason throughout the film and at one point you can hear a train hoot its horn. When the story demands some suspense, for example when the hero and girl enter the killer’s cabin shouting at each other to be quiet, the soundtrack has the sound of someone randomly beating a steel bin. The only proper music is a kind of comedy slapstick number which plays over a guy struggling to move himself around in his wheelchair.  That’s the offensive bit of this video nasty – yeah take the piss out of the handicapped why don’t you! There is a theme tune though, when the film finally ends, with its weirdly downbeat and bleak coda, a chirpy little number pops up sounding like teddy bears picnic but singing about being chopped up into little pieces.

Worst of all, Don’t Go In The Woods might be called Don’t Go In The Woods but most of it is set on a mountain side with barely a wood in sight.

Its all complete nonsense. Certainly worth a watch just to see how not to make a movie. I thought this was going to be one of those one-shot director deals, where a bunch of friends decided to make a horror movie and then never made another film again. But no, this was director James Bryan’s eighth movie, and he would go on to make many more.  Maybe if the conservative government had watched this film they might have done something more useful than banning the film: banning Bryan from ever going near a film set again.

 

 

 

 

Hell Night 1981

In the rush to cash in on the surprise box office success of Friday the 13th, slasher film makers seemed to forget one thing: why it was a hit in the first place. Perhaps it has been lost in the mist of time but I clearly remember when it came out back in 1980 (and I was far too young then to sneak into an X certificate film dammit). What everyone was talking about were the gory deaths and how realistic they looked. Let’s face facts it’s not like Friday the 13th was even in the same league as Halloween which had come out two years previously. It had neither the tension or the cinematic professionalism to match Carpenter’s classic. What it did have was an axe through the face, a guy being used as bow and arrow target practice and Kevin Bacon getting speared through the throat, seemingly in real time. It was a freak show, a carnival, a house of horrors and people flocked to see its grisly showmanship.

So a year later when the cinemas were ram-packed with slashers, as teens died silly nilly, moments after getting their clothes off, it was the promise of more of this macabre side show that got the audiences in. How disappointing it must have been for them to find the likes of Hell Night limply following the same old story but with little of the red stuff. As part of a sorority/ fraternity initiation four students must stay the night in Garth Manor where a decade before a crazy old man killed his mutant family and then himself. Obviously they are all doomed and there will be a final girl.

On the positive side that final girl is the one and only Linda Blair.

Blair had been thrown into the spotlight several years before hand as twelve year-old head spinner Regan in The Exorcist. It was a defining role she would never escape though often embrace. By the time of Hell Night she had shed off her childhood roles and was now, quite frankly, a full chested woman, which film makers here mercilessly exploit as she is strapped into a fancy dress costume that pushes her breasts to the fore. For these kind of film, the acting is variable at best, but Blair, being the consummate professional and by then an old hand at the age of 22, gives it her all and acts much better than the scripts deserves. I noticed on IMDb that The Razzies awarded her Worst Actress for her performance here, which is sad when she is clearly doing her best in a cheesy b-movie. It is also typical of The Razzies who come across as more like judgemental bullies rather than just gentle fun pokers of the industry.

The rest of the cast, to be judgmental, are pretty awful. It doesn’t help that the script tries to throw in a lot of jokes that the actors just aren’t up to delivering. There is an ongoing joke about a girl making out with a guy called Seth who she keeps calling Wes. When he says he has to go to the John, she says “Hey, I thought your name was Seth?” You can almost see the tumble weeds rolling past the screen. Another couple of students playing pranks on the main four comment about how the girl with them is a pain. “We should have left her behind.” “Why? Her behind is the best part. We should have kept her behind and left the rest of her.” That wouldn’t be a good joke in a Carry On movie.

Talking of Carry On movies, one of the characters seems to have fallen straight out of them. Denise, played by British Actress Suki Goodwin, spends the entire film in red and black stockings and suspenders and is constantly making double-entendres. There are various jokes about only lasting three strokes and finishing off and you can almost imagine her bursting into a Barbara Windsor style giggle. The only difference is that she claims to have taken loads of Quaaludes so is obviously tripping her fits off, until she reaches her untimely demise. Babs would never be caught dead doing such a thing. It’s a shame Denise does die (off camera) as she is almost entertaining at points. Or maybe it’s just the suspenders.

Hell Night is okay. There are certainly many worse slashers from this time. There’s some interesting diversions and a twist or two and it has a strong climax when Blair finally gets to do something other than scream and hide behind a big-haired man. However, the bulk of the film substitutes decent kills for far too much of characters walking around in the dark saying “hello is there anybody there?” Of course you need these scenes to build up the tension, and I’m sure they were fairly effective back in 1981 in American movie theatres packed with screaming teenagers. But these scenes of tension need to have a punchline, and in the horror films that came after Friday the 13th that punchline needed to be a good kill with some decent make up effects. Hell Night does not have enough of this. Most deaths are too quickly edited or boring to warrant the long build up. One of the few gore effects is clearly a woman lying under a bed sticking her head through a hole in the matress. See:

Its not as embarrassingly obvious as the similar effect in the toilet in The House On Sorority Row but its not far off and who the hell are they kidding anyway.

Saying all that, the most effective moment hardly involves any blood at all: Seth tries to escape by climbing over the high spiked gate of the manor – its wince-inducing as he tries not to get killed, not by the murderer but by his own drunken clumsiness.

Maybe Hell Night is fine after all. Maybe I’m just harking back to my own childish ways when the idea of a good horror movie was how gory it was, and how many pictures of said gore could it get inside the covers of Fangoria magazine. On the other hand, maybe not… if you’re a slasher movie from the early eighties spill blood or go home.

 

 

I, Madman 1989

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As oddball eighties horror movies go I, Madman certainly is mad. It is like a bizarre nerdy version of The Phantom of The Opera although I suspect it was pitched as like A Nightmare on Elm Street but with books instead of dreams. What’s not to like?

 

Near Dark’s Jenny Wright stars as wannabe actress who works in a book shop on Sunset Boulevard. She comes across some pulpy old book written by a Malcom Brand which deals with monsters in chests and crazy old scientists. Acknowledging that it is hokey nonsense Wright still wants to read Brand’s other book I, Madman. Once she starts reading that,  events start happening in real life that reflect what is on the written page. These events, and when I say events I mean brutal murders, are caused by a faceless killer in a big cloak and fancy beret. And when I say faceless I mean he literally has no face, as he cut it off in some previous crazed moment. Don’t worry he is using bits of his victims to rebuild his image, mostly to impress Wright. Needless to say she is not impressed. Even less impressed is her police detective boyfriend who thinks she’s making the whole thing up.

 

So that’s the basics of the film. What doesn’t come across is how I, Madman is cleanly shot like a lush mainstream Hollywood movie with some lovely nods to film noir. It has moody lighting with great use of dark spaces and silhouette to hide Brand (but also to show him off). Clayton Rohner as her boyfriend may be a modern policeman but he dresses and acts like he’s stumbled out of a Raymond Chandler novel. Then there’s lovely long shots out of Wright’s apartment window viewing her neighbour playing piano, a touch of light in a sea of darkness.

 

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Wright is also a great noir-like heroine. Berated by her boyfriend for being crazy and Brand for being the object of his desire, Wright is an old fashioned character who might not have the more modern fight back of a final girl but is willing to put herself in harm’s way to solve the mystery and stop the monster. Jenny Wright is an alluring screen presence. It’s a shame she she quit acting a few years after this but then maybe she wasn’t utilized as well as she is here. There are a number of flashback scenes where she plays other characters and dips in and out of madness herself occasionally, all with a great commitment to her role. Her main character, Virginia, is both brave and frightened at the same time, never an easy thing to pull off, but she’s also bookish and nerdy and really likeable. It’s no wonder Brand wants her heart… literally.

 

Malcolm Brand himself is also a throwback to older movie monsters. When we first meet him he’s a weird old mad professor type, but he also has a sharp long nose and pointy teeth like Nosferatu. Brand could have been a tragic figure, especially the way he swoops around in the darkness like a Phantom pining after Virginia, but instead Randall William Cook plays him like a horrible, demented person, a madman if you will, and he’s all the better for it.

 

The film certainly looks good enough to have been at some point someone’s idea as a contender to knock Freddy Kruger off his crown. Clearly a decent amount if money has been spent on it. But I, Madman is playing to the beat of its own drum. It doesn’t care about teens in peril, it wants to focus on just one interesting woman with an obsession with pulp fiction. Books were never going to get that young demographic down to the multiplexes the way Freddy and his nightmares did, they’re just not “cool” enough. But director Tibor Takacs obviously doesn’t care about any of that. He clearly loves this world he has created: there is literally a scene where Virginia tries to escape from brand by running up a mountain of novels.

 

And I love the world of I, Madman too. Its slick enough to be an easy watch but it’s also interested in how literature can spill into real life, and how real life can look like a detective novel. Like the heroine, I, Madman might just be crazy but what’s so wrong with crazy?

 

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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 1974

The thing that springs to my mind when I think of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the first holiday I went to without any adult supervision. It was to Majorca with Aldo Breda and Greg Byrne, we were seventeen, stupid and horny. I was also skint. It wasn’t that I didn’t have spending money, up until a day before we flew out to the Spanish sun I’d saved up £140 for the two weeks we’d be away. Ten pounds a day back then was more enough for beers and burgers. However on my back home from buying a pair of “cool” swimming trunks (black with royal blue stripes? Well it was the eighties) a shelf in a crappy little video rental shop caught my eye. Through the window I could see the faded but distinctive red and white cover of a VHS of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It stared at me… called to me.

You have to remember that back in the late eighties there had been a huge purge of the early video release horror movies in video shops. This was after the notories Video Nasties Act of 1984 which resulted in the mass burning of genre video tapes like it was Nazi Germany. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre wasn’t actually on the Video Nasties list but right wing papers like the Daily Mail frequently used it as example of the type of film corrupting British children’s lives. So it, along with all the other movies, got removed from from the rental shop shelves.

Therefore for me to be suddenly confronted with a copy of the film in the window of a shop with a big closing down sign on it, and having a wad of cash in my pocket, meant I was in there beginning notions before I knew it.

My negotiation skills were not up to par.

I set off to Majorca with £60 in my pocket and I beaten up copy of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in my bag. I was a happy, but very poor, young man.

The upshot of all this was that I watched my copy The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a lot over the next few years. No one else had the film, so when I had mates over it was the first tape pulled off my extensive video shelf. It was so coveted that my first girlfriend stole it off me (her next boyfriend gave it back). It even got shown at my university film club in their cinema – its shaky, tape-damaged picture with rough, wobbly sound thrilling my fellow students as they downed the free bourbon we handed out to them.

However until last night I had only ever watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in a terribly poor pan and scan VHS copy, and I don’t think I’d ever realised what a damned beautiful and cleverly shot movie it really is. I’m not saying that it looks like a Terence Malik number but Tobe Hooper uses and exploits the subject and scenery to such an extrodinary effect that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre stops just being a pinicale of exploitation cinema and becomes a work of filmic art. And remember this was shot on 16mm film stock on a budget of just $300,000. Spoilers ahead…

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The opening scene sets the tone. Bursts of a light bulb reveal grisly close ups of old, rotten flesh before we cut to dawn and a macarbre display of dug up corpses. Its not until much later that we can make the connections of what these images mean: the flashes of light are from the soon-to-be-met Hitchhiker’s camera and this is him expressing himself in a form of revolting, anarchic art. The house his family, the Sawyers, live in is full of this self expression from the Hitchhiker. Instead of unearthed remains, his materials are his victims. You could say this scene was what Tobe Hooper was trying to do as well: make art out of horror.

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When we cut to daylight, and supposed normality, as we see the doomed youths driving around in the mystery machine from Scooby Doo. They are a tiny, insignificant spec on the landscape. For now it seems like just big old American country, but everywhere they go they are confronted with signs of their impending doom.  For example there is the twisted form of a drunk on the floor, rambling about strange occurences in these here parts, himself looking like a one of its victims.

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When the gang foolishly pick up the Hitchhiker they suddenly realise that the free-wheelin’ hippy world they live in has no place in this part of Texas. The Hitchhiker may look like just another counter culture drop-out but he’s unpredictable, twisted and takes great pleasure in unleashing violence upon them. He keeps photos of slaughtered animals in his weird furry bag and laughs manically when he slashes open the wheelchair bound Frankin’s arm with his cut-throat razor. The looks on the gang’s faces as he shows them his knife is priceless, revealing horror, bemusment and confusion:

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When they reach their destination, an old colonial mansion that used to be owned by Franklin and his sister Sally, it is not their home any more. Despite it being broad daylight the house is draped in darkness. Hooper and his team found a fantastic old abandoned location for this, the overgrown vines making the windows black even in the midday sun:

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This feeling of entering dark territory extends to inside the house; when the four horny and able young things are running around the corridors of this mansion, Franklin is left by the front porch cut away from them. He’s trapped in his chair. We’re unable to properly see his longing to be part of the gang but his silhoutted head angled up, listening to the footsteps above him, says everything we need to know.

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Whether its through choice or simply a lack of budget for some decent lamps, Hooper uses the silhoutte to great effect numerous times in the film. He uses it show the passing of time in a simple, but beautiful, image of one of the characters standing against a glorious sunset:

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And he uses silhouette to show Leatherface, rocking back and forth in his seat. Is he upset by his own actions or just rocking back and forth with some kind of demented rush of pleasure?Its impossible to tell, and Hooper leaves it up to us to decide.

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Hooper also uses it to illustrate handsome but stupid Kirk’s final moments. He peers into the darkness of the Sawyer household, unable to see anything but darkness, but still he goes in:

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This light and dark is cleverly reflected in the reverse angle: the set up and composition of the shot is almost exactly the same but instead of having the brilliant brightness of light, and life, through the door, we now see dark blood reds and animal remains. It is a doorway of death, and the moment we see it it is the moment that murder arrives in the hulking form of Leatherface. He towers above Kirk before landing the killer blow. It is one of the great shocks in horror cinema and Hooper makes it look easy.

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The first half of the film has a number of beautiful images before the film gives way to the ugliness of the situation the gang, but mostly Sally, find themselves in. One of the very best shots in the film has to be when poor Kim goes looking for Kirk. From sitting on the swinging chair to walking up to the Sawyer house, this shot alone says so much about the film it is in. There’s the glorious Texas sunshine, the supple young thing casually sauntering up to the old house (she has so little protection she is virtually naked), and the house itself, looming over its victim, its blacked out windows and covering trees stooping over her, and us. We don’t know what is going on behind those walls. The below still can’t show you but this is also a stunning and smooth tracking shot that starts off under the seat of the the swing and follows Kim, through the grass like a snake, to her inevitable, terrible doom.

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Once the sunlight fades and we are thrown into darkness, Tobe Hooper uses his next great film making trick – most of the night time shots are lit almost exclusively by the in situ lights. When its only siblings Franklin and Sally left, they are lit just by the Mystery Machine’s headlights and Franklin’s torch:

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Now, instead of the Texas sun they have nothing, and no way of knowing what is out there in the darkness beyond a couple of failing lights. When Leatherface lurches out of said darkness, chainsaw in hand, it is a genuine shock, and a sudden, merciless end to the most outspoken character in the film. Franklin may repel any sympathy we have for him with his constant wining but he is also the only sensible member of the gang. It’s always him who says they shouldn’t hang around the house, he notices the emblems made of bones and he’s the one who says that they need to drive away without Kirk, Kim or that other chap with massive hair. Sally of course ignores his words and pushes him to his death in the dark woods.

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There Franklin is, lit only by his own flashlight, and its a nauseating and offensive image: a man so defenceless due to his handicap, murdered in the most gruesome and violent fashion, by a monster looming out of the dark.

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It’s at this moment that Sally, who so far has been little more than back drop, comes into her own. Unfortunately for her, she realises instantly that not only is her brother dying in front of her but that her boyfriend and mates are all dead, and she is all alone. Her reaction to this, as Marilyn Burns expresses so brilliantly, is complete and utter insanity.

This madness does drive her forward though in a deranged bid to survive. The long, desperate chase through the woods, towards pin pricks of light that might hold civilisation and therefore safety, again shows Hoopers excellent use of light, or a complete lack thereof.  Night time shooting is difficult enough at the best of times, but trying to shoot an action chase with next to no set lights must have been a nightmare. The effect though is riveting. We barely see more than twigs and branches whipping past Sally but Hooper keeps things moving at a breakneck speed with fast tracking shots and long lenses like the one below that makes Leatherface look like he is a foot away from Sally, about to strike the killer blow.

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In horror cinema there is nothing more basic than a masked maniac chasing a girl through the woods at night, and the one in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one the first examples of this. It is also probably the very best, as it is so dynamic and oppressive in its execution.

Its after this breathtaking scene that Hooper’s playfulness with some abstract closeups throughout the film reaches their punchline. There have been numerous odd close ups like the bone through a pocket watch, or the dead armadillo, littered throughout the film. It’s hard to tell what they are let alone what they actually mean. However when Sally thinks she has found sanctity at the gas station, she stares numbly at the barbecue cooking up a treat next to her.

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What is that hanging there? It’s never explained and Sally is distracted by the next horror before she can fully ingest what it is she’s looking at, but Hooper doesn’t have to say anything. That meat isn’t just any old animal. The close up won’t tell you what it is, but to the audience it can only be one thing.

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If it isn’t obvious then shortly afterwards we are treated to a lovely family dinner, again lit only by location light. However this location’s light is made of human skin.

From here on in the rest of the film is purely from Sally’s perspective, often from just behind her head, so we get a great view of the Sawyer family watching us as their dinner guest.

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Or even from Sally’s direct point of view so Leatherface, now in his favourite female face, stares directly into our eyes.

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Hooper gets so into the idea of seeing this monstrous scene from the victim’s crazed point of view that he thrusts us deep into her eyeball. Her intense terror literally fills the whole screen.

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It’s a sudden relief when Sally takes her one chance of freedom and makes a break for it through the window. What’s shocking is that after the seemingly eternal night it is in fact daylight outside. So is it that the family dinner she was the “guest” at must have in fact been an early morning breakfast, and she was the fry up?

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Upon her eacape she comes across a juggernaut driven by this guy:

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The poor chap. There he was minding his business, probably thinking about his next burger, and all of a sudden he’s getting chased by a nutter with a chainsaw. Unlike Sally he doesn’t eacape on the back of a pick up truck and, let’s face it, is probably not the fastest runner. What happens to him after the credits roll? We never find out but that’s a sequel I would watch.

As Sally drives off into the distance she may have physically escaped alive but, covered in blood like slaughtered livestock, there doesn’t seem to be anything left of her humanity. She is just a mad, screaming image of fear.

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We end with Leatherface dancing a macabre waltz with his chainsaw. He spins it round and hold it up in the air like its his ballroom partner. To him it’s a celebration of his monstrous life – alive and in broad daylight doing what he does best: swinging a chainsaw and scaring people to death.

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It’s as if Hooper understood what an iconic monster he was creating in Leatherface and was celebrating him with this ghoulish shuffle in the Texas dawn.

Some would say that Hooper would never again reach the heights he reached with this his second film. Artistically they almost cetainly would be right… The seventeen year old me upon watching my newly acquired VHS for the first time thought he preferred Hooper’s ridiculous Lifeforce. But then that teenager had seen the space vampire epic in the cinema and The Texas Cahinsaw Massacre only in crap-o-vision. Now I’ve finally seen it in all its lurid glory, I can fully appreciate what a true work of art it really is. I hope you all can too.

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