Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, July 16, 2016

Director Report Card: Tobe Hooper (1993) Part 1

12. Night Terrors

Tobe Hooper’s association with the Cannon Film Group didn’t end with his three picture deal in the eighties. It didn’t even end when Cannon went out of business in the early nineties. After the dissolution of that company, Yoram Globus would start Global Pictures. It was through the latter company that Globus would produce “Night Terrors.” The film is the sole screenwriting credit of Rom Globus, presumably a relative of Yoram’s. Considering his stated fondness for working with Golan and Globus, it’s not surprising that Tobe Hooper would work with at least one of them again. Yet “Night Terrors” does not match up with the director’s outrageous eighties output.

Genie is the daughter of a renown archeologist and expert in Christianity, Dr. Matheson. His work takes the daughter to Alexandria, Egypt. There, he uncovers ancient artifacts from a Gnostic cult. Genie, meanwhile, meets a mysterious woman named Sabina. Despite her puritanical father’s warnings, Genie and Sabina become fast friends. She introduces the young woman to drugs, sadomasochistic sex, and the writings of the Marquis de Sade. She also introduces her to Paul Chevaller, a modern day descendant of de Sade. The mad Chevaller leads a cult and has his eyes on Genie.

“Night Terrors” has a horribly unfocused screenplay that mashes together a number of seemingly unrelated idea. Is it a grisly horror film about a cult plucking out people’s eyeballs? Yes. Is it a story of the conflict between religious convictions and kinky sex? Uh-huh. Is it a weirdo exploitation movie about the Marquis de Sade? Yep. If any one idea emerges out of this mess of unrelated premises, it’s the corruption of innocence. Genie is not exactly virginal at the story’s beginning, having already given it up to an ex-boyfriend. Yet she’s certainly a babe in the woods when Sabina and Chevaler introduce her to S&M. This is all in defiance to her conservative father’s Bible-thumping ways. The story of a sweet girl being indoctrinated into a world of sexual debasement slightly mirrors de Sade’s “Justine.” Yet that has nothing to do with the story’s horror elements. That Genie is slightly promiscuous to begin with just furthers “Night Terrors’” muddled story.

The main selling point for “Night Terrors” to most horror fans, I suspect is seeing Robert Englund paly the Marquis de Sade. The film begins with a flashback to the 1810s, during de Sade’s lengthy imprisonment towards the end of his life. He is whipped, beaten, and has acid dripped into one eye, all of which he enjoys. While in his cell, he writes on the nature of religion and sex, often tormenting the other prisoners. Despite most of the story being set in the modern day, “Night Terrors” often cuts to these flashbacks. The connection between these sequences and the rest of the story is vague, at best. As the Marquis, Englund puts on goofy French accent, wears a ridiculous powdered wig, and hams it up to the heavens. It’s sometimes entertaining though not in a way that would classify as “good.”

Yet maybe it’s okay that “Night Terrors” frequently has Englund’s de Sade interrupt the story. The original sadist’s modern day equivalent doesn’t appear until nearly fifty minutes into the movie. As Paul Chevaller, Englund appears more grounded. This, of course, is a disguise. Chevaller tortures girls in his basement, sacrifices people during occult rituals, and plucks out eyeballs with a giant hypodermic needle. He’s also quite insane, hearing voices and screaming at his own reflection. Ultimately, these scenes feel similar to many of the other dopey, low budget horror flicks Englund would headline during his post-Krueger years. “Night Terrors” isn’t even as good as “Phantom of the Opera” or “Dance Macabre.” As talented a performer as Englund is, he’s not enough to elevate material as thin as this.

“Night Terrors” is clearly interested in religious ideas but it has no idea how to implement these concepts. Genie’s father is so religious that he can quote scripture with ease. At the dinner table, he dismisses Gnostic philosophy as not truly Christian. Despite this, he seems to be a customer of Sabina’s dominatrix business. Chevaller and his followers seem to be related with the Gnostic artifacts. While wearing black robes, they bow before a vaguely Babylonian carving of a mermaid or siren. What exactly the goal of this cult, and how it ties into Chevaller’s kinky mind games, isn’t made clear. The hypocrisy of religious fanatics or secret cult rituals are floating around inside “Night Terrors,” without formulating into a solid point.

Aside from Englund, “Night Terrors” is a star vehicle for Zoe Trilling. Trilling is scream queen of minor acclaim. I know her best as the voluptuous mean girl Shirley in “Night of the Demons 2.” She also appeared in “The Borrower,” “Dr. Giggles,” the fourth “Amityville Horror” film, and that movie were Chuck Norris fights the devil. Trilling is lovely to look at and spends much of “Night Terrors” in lingerie, slinky t-shirts, or nothing at all. As an actress, Trilling has limited talent. When playing a slightly bitchy and mostly laid back teenage girl, she does fine. When asked to scream in fear or simmer with sexual passion, Trilling’s performance goes to awfully silly places. Trilling’s role as Genie makes the case that she was better utilized as a supporting player, instead of a leading lady.

Tobe Hooper’s films have featured sexual elements before. Such as the greasy sleaziness of “Eaten Alive” or the naked vampire girl from “Lifeforce.” “Night Terrors,” meanwhile, might be the director’s first attempt at a full-blown erotic thriller. I’m not even talking about the kinky violence of the de Sade sequences. While partying around Alexandria, Sabina takes Genie to a bar where topless women dance suggestively with snakes. Later, the teen girl meets a swarthy Egyptian man named Mahmoud. The two quickly fall into bed together for an extended, softly lit sex scene. Later, Genie has a dream where Mahmoud takes her again. Surprisingly, the film even features some male nudity. During a bizarre sequence, Mahmoud rides a horse while entirely nude, little Mahmoud bouncing back and forth in the wind. While the nudity is plentiful and the sex scenes are lovingly shot, “Night Terrors” is never truly sexy. It’s too detached and its sleazy side is too self-satisfied.

Despite what the title may lead you to believe, “Night Terrors” isn’t about nightmares or sleep paralysis. The title seems to have been chosen for its catchiness. However, the movie does feature a few bizarre dream sequences. The above naked horseback ride takes place during one of those dreams. During Genie’s trip through the Alexandria night clubs, she has a vision of bleeding snakes and her father wielding a cross and preaching. The next day, while wandering the desert, she has a similar vision. Probably the most striking dream sequences involves Sabina appearing in bed with Genie. The older woman wears body paint that suggests both leaves growing on her skin and snake-like features. Before the two girls can get closer, Englund’s de Sade appears crucified on a large stone cross. It’s weird but at least more memorable then most of the movie.

Robert Englund isn’t the only cult figure appearing in “Night Terrors.” The film is actually an “Eaten Alive” reunion, of sorts. Aside from Englund, William Finley also appears in the movie. Finley plays Genie’s dad. Few could play sweaty and crazy like William Finley could yet “Night Terrors” seems to oddly restrain his talent. As the strict Christian patriarch, he’s allowed to go on a few rants. Too often though, he sits back and delivers boring exposition. A few times, Finley’s performance is even a bit flat. It’s unusual and I don’t blame Finley but the muddled script. Even if its not his best moment, I still think his character exits the film far too early.

There’s few recognizable names in “Night Terrors’” supporting cast. Alonha Kimhi, a Ukrainian actress with few credits, plays Sabina. Kimhi purrs with her odd accent, bringing a slight sexiness to the role. Despite that, Kimhi’s talent has its limits. Late Israeli actor Juliano Khamis co-stars as Mahmoud. When seducing Genie, Khamis gives an okay performance. The film asks him to perform more overtly villainous acts, Khamis’ acting ability falters. Chandra West plays Genie’s friend Beth while Niv Cohen plays her boyfriend, Chuck. These two feature in some of the film’s silliest moments. Before becoming an odd erotic thriller, “Night Terrors” features goofy scene of these three having teenage adventures, like something out of a high school comedy.

“Night Terrors” is horribly unfocused. Among its multiple, competing ideas are more traditional horror elements. A brief scene is devoted to Chevaller stalking Genie’s friend through the castle-like basement of his property. The scenery is foggy, shot in rich, night blues. He carries a spring-loaded, thrusting stiletto blade. That’s a weapon that calls out for a proper slasher movie villain to use it. We see the aftereffects of that weapon, dead bodies and decapitated heads with their eyes jabbed out. In its final moments, “Night Terrors” seems like it might be getting back to these more basic, satisfying elements. Genie escapes and Chevaller takes chase, wielding his murder implement. Sadly, the film goes off the rails again, providing a bizarre, nonsensical conclusion.

“Night Terrors” is a good example of what horror was like in the early nineties. Directors and actors with cult followings, like Robert Englund and Tobe Hooper, would draw just enough attention to utterly forgettable, kind of shitty movies like this. They’d then slump out to television or video, receiving lackluster coverage in Fangoria magazine. This is what happens to a genre when you spend an entire decade grinding out formulaic schlock. “Night Terrors” continues Tobe Hooper’s nineties slump. Whether or not that ever ended is up for debate. [Grade: C-]

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