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Sunday, October 22, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 21

The Slumber Party Massacre (1982)

Very early in the slasher film's existence, it was apparent that the sub-genre relied heavily on established troupes and cliches. After all, the first slasher parody emerged in 1981, only two or three years into the sub-genre's mainstream existence. Around the same time, noted feminist and lesbian writer Rita Mae Brown wrote a script making fun of slashers, called “Sleepless Nights.” The project would then be re-written as a serious slasher flick, against Brown's wishes. Veteran editor-turned-director Amy Holden Jones would bring the script to Roger Corman's New World Pictures, who would release it as “The Slumber Party Massacre.” The film has since grown a cult following among slasher fans, who consider it a prototypical example of the genre.

Some time ago, notorious serial killer Russ Thorn murdered several women before being captured. Now, Thorn has escaped. He descends on a posh California neighborhood, with murder on his mind and armed with his favorite weapon: An electric drill. High school senior Trish, and her friends, don't know about any of this. After a basketball game, they decide to throw a slumber party. Trish is snubbed but checks in from time to time, when not watching her little sister. Naturally, a pair of horny boys attempt to crash the party too. Unfortunately for the girls, Thorn soon finds them and makes their night of frivolous fun into a nightmare.

Brown's script might have been extensively tinkered with but, occasionally, “Slumber Party Massacre's” roots as a parody are still visible. It's easy to see how several moments could've been played for laughs. Early on, a pair of teenage boys hit on a female telephone repair technician. After dodging their come-ons, she's yanked into her own van and killed by Thorn. This happens right behind the boys' backs, who are totally oblivious. The next door neighbor goes around chopping up snails with a meat cleaver, for totally ridiculous reasons. Later, a dead body hangs out of a fridge on multiple occasion, before anyone notices. In the middle of fleeing from a murderer, one of the girls decides to eat a slice of pizza. While down in the basement, the final girl grabs a circular saw and runs off, unaware that its still plugged in. “Slumber Party Massacre” plays these moments totally straight but they're still pretty funny.

The most farcical element of “Slumber Party Massacre” is its killer. Russ Thorn wields a knife in one scene but his usual weapon is a battery-powered drill with an absurdly long bit. If the subtext of a man literally drilling a bunch of women to death wasn't obvious, there's one shot where Thorn's drill dangles between his legs. So the film confronts the widely-presumed sexism of the slasher genre by giving the killer an overt phallic symbol for a weapon. Thorn even claims to love the girls he kills, making his murders symbolically sexual conquests of his female victims. Predating “Men, Women, and Chainsaws” by a decade, the film concludes with the girl cutting off Thorn's drill – castration – before penetrating him with a machete, feminizing the masculine killer. Knowing Brown is a lesbian, it's easy to read into the interactions between the girls. They repeatedly reject the advances of men in favor of spending time with each other. One girl even judo flips a guy who tries the hand on the shoulder trick. I somehow doubt Amy Holden Jones wasn't at least aware of what she was doing with this stuff.

For whatever subversive qualities “The Slumber Party Massacre” might have, it still operates like a standard slasher movie. Holden's direction is just as leering – maybe more so – as your typical horror flick pitched at hormonal teenage boys. There's an extended shower sequence, lots of shots of girls in tight jeans and tiny gym shorts, and the girls spend most of the film in lingerie. The other cliches of the genre, like the spring-loaded cat or the killer returning from a seemingly fatal injury, are present and accounted for. There's pot and hanky-panky. You might think there's only so many ways to kill somebody with a drill but “Slumber Party Massacre” gets pretty creative. Shoulders, eyes, foreheads and abdomens are drilled. There's even a throat slashing and a near gutting! It's easy to see why this is horror comfort food for so many fans. It hits all the expected beats.

Unexpectedly, “The Slumber Party Massacre” would spawn a small cinematic universe of spin-offs and related films. Aside from two direct sequels, New World Pictures would also produce the similarly themed “Sorority House Massacre.” That would get its own sequel as well as an unofficial spin-off called “Hard to Die” Jim Wynorski, who directed that film, would later make another similar film called “Cheerleader Massacre,” which also got its own sequel. That got complicated quickly, didn't it? I guess guys with drills murdering girls in negligees has a universal appeal. As for the original “Slumber Party Massacre,” it's a perfectly entertaining, bite-sized slasher snack, perfect for a chilly October night. [7/10]

Grave Encounters (2011)

Here in 2017, the found footage genre is just about burned out. The defining franchise of the movement, “Paranormal Activity,” has ended. Even indie producers have started to drop the style. Found footage was the hot horror trend for a while but, like all trends, is now passe. Lots of shitty found footage movies were released over the last decade, to the point where I just ignored most of them. I similarly dismissed “Grave Encounters” when it first dropped in 2011. However, over the years, the movie has received some better than average reviews. The movie has been on my watch-list for a while and, hey, what better time is there then Halloween to watch a flick like this?

“Grave Encounters” has a pretty clever premise. It follows the crew of one of those cable ghost hunter shows. You know the ones I'm talking about and you know that they're all awful. Anyway,  Jerry Hartfield hosts the titular show, a ghostly hunting programming that's done a few episodes. The gang's latest adventure takes them to a supposedly haunted mental hospital, in Maryland. At first, it's business as usual. A fake psychic pretends to feel sinister vibes. The host bribes a groundskeeper to say he saw something spooky. However, as the night inside the asylum goes on, the crew begins to experience genuinely strange things. They are soon trapped in a full-blown nightmare.

I have zero respect for the cable ghost hunting show, so I appreciate “Grave Encounters'” initial skewering of that genre. The idea of phony ghost hunters encountering real ghosts is a decent set-up for a horror picture. “Grave Encounters” also has a genuinely spooky location. The old asylum, with its winding hallways and history of abuse, produces some decent atmosphere. There's a few decent moments of casual creepiness. Such as when a camera, placed down on the floor, catches a wheelchair slowly rolling around in the background. Or a woman's hair being lifted up into the air by an unseen spectre. These early scenes suggest “Grave Encounters” may rely on subtler, spookier scares than the kind you typically associate with the found footage genre.

That, however, ends up not being the case. “Grave Encounters” soon degrades into the jump scare machine I was anticipating. Now, don't take that as entirely a bad thing. Some of the jump scares in the movie are actually pretty well executed. One, involving a body leaping out of a blood-filled bath tub, managed to get me. There's also a pretty cool shot, predating a similar effect in the next year's “V/H/S,” of ghostly arms protruding through the wall. However, too many of the quote-unquote scary scenes in “Grave Encounter” lack impact. Like when a ghost girl's face stretches in an obviously computer-assisted fashion. The movie repeats that effect several times, growing less effective each time. It's the kind of lame scares present in too many modern horror pictures.

In fact, “Grave Encounters” leans on the cliches of the found footage genre liberally. As in “The Blair Witch Project” and a thousand imitators, large portions of the film are devoted to people wandering the location, swearing at each other, and generally panicking too much. One character, in particular, starts throwing around homophobic and racist slurs. Which does not win the audience over, as you might guess. “Grave Encounters'” story features another gimmick. Once trapped inside the asylum, the gang starts to experience time in a different fashion. They're trapped in a never-ending night. (Last year's “Blair Witch” reboot also tried this.) It's an okay idea but, honestly, it quickly begins to feel like “Grave Encounters'” writers just didn't have enough material for a feature film.

I'm not sure what “Grave Encounters” being singled out as a decent found footage flick says about the genre. As I said, the movie has some good ideas, a decent setting, and one or two effective moments. However, it also relies way too much on the stuff that annoys me about movies like this. (Though it is, thankfully, pretty low on the shaky-cam.) The film was apparently well-received enough to spawn a sequel the next year. The directors, crediting themselves as the Vicious Brothers, would make an alien film next which dropped the found footage gimmick. I guess even they got sick of that. [6/10]

Aqua Teen Hunger Force: The Shaving

When it premiered in 2000, who would've thought that “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” – a stoneriffic comedy about three anthropomorphic fast food items not doing much of anything – would run for over a decade? I stopped following the show after a few years but those first couple seasons are gold. “The Shaving” comes from season two and is the show's Halloween episode. The Aqua Teens are preparing for a night of trick-or-treating, arguing among themselves as they are wont too. This is when an unexpected visitor appears. He looks like an onion with spider legs. He calls himself Willie Nelson, says he lives in the antic, and claims to be a monster. Master Shake finds him to be awfully soft-spoken for a monster and attempts to school him in the monstrous ways.

“The Shaving” is high on the show's typical absurdity. The episode is full of the program's trademark circular dialogue. Master Shake's abrasive dialogue – accusing everyone of being gay, of attempting to shove Meatwad in a blender, calling Frylock “Dr. Zhivago” – is pretty hilarious. However, “The Shaving” actually makes an interesting point about how different people define scariness. Master Shake attempts to turn Willie into a real monster. He has him wield chainsaws – which have short chords, in a nice touch – and threaten to murder people. This climaxes when he hooks massive electrical cables to the front door of Carl, the gang's belligerent next door neighbor. (This goes hilariously, gruesomely wrong.) Yet Shake ends up being spooked by something a lot more simple: Someone leaping out and saying “Boo!” Shake believes killing and scaring is synonymous but it's actually a little more complicated than that.

What I really love about “The Shaving” is the character of Willie Nelson. He's voiced by Tom Scharpling, with a perfectly dead-pan delivery. First off, Willie has to clarify that he's not that Willie Nelson. Secondly, he consider waving an electric shaver is scary behavior, granting the episode its title in the process. His arguments with Shake, mostly pertaining to the behavior of Blood Feast Island Man, is frequently hilarious. So is the befuddled way he shouts “What are you doing here?” while wielding two chainsaws. The eventual reveal, that the character is exactly as monstrous as he claims to be, is one of the best ending in the show's history. As I've said in the past, “Aqua Teen Hunger Force's” brand of ripe absurdity isn't going to be for everyone but, when it's as good as it is here, I'm all for it. [8/10]

Scary Mask (2013)

I've probably mentioned this before. Every year, strictly for the amusement of my friends and I, I put together a clip show of Halloween and horror-related trailers, clips, music videos, commercials, and short films. I call it the Halloween Mega-Mix. Finding shorts for the collection is often the trickiest part, as most good horror shorts run a little too long for my purpose. When I stumbled upon Shock til You Drop's 2013 Halloween Night Short Film contest, it was a gold mine. One such film is “Scary Mask.” Running only three minutes, it concerns a guy crashing a Halloween party and seeing another party-goer with a deformed face. I won't spoil what happens next.

“Scary Mask” basically functions like a joke. The premise is simple, designed to set up the climax which hits the audience the same way a punchline does. The special effects are simple but work. When you the viewer sees the guy with the weird face, our reaction is similar to the protagonist. That bafflement and disgust builds to a decent twist ending. As a Halloween short film, it manages to pack a lot of seasonal vibes into its brief run time. The film's setting looks like a pretty bitching Halloween party. Over all, I'd recommend you check this one out, as it's a decent bit of spooky fun. [7/10]

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