Sunday, November 1, 2020

Pengabdi Setan (1980)

... aka: Bila Dia Datang (When She Comes)
... aka: Satan's Slave
... aka: Servant of Satan

Directed by:
Sisworo Gautama Putra

If you're a regular visitor, you already know I'll sit through a fuzzy, blurry, washed out, pixelated, too dark, too bright, scratched and otherwise heavily-damaged film with a screwed up aspect ratio taken from a crappy former VHS rental or cheaply pressed VCD with no subtitles granted these are obscure films we're talking about, there's not much information about them online otherwise and nothing better is available. And that's typically the case with older Indonesian genre films. Of the around 150 horror films made there between 1950 and 1990, only a small number of these have been restored. An even smaller number than that have been restored and released with English subtitles. So what a pleasure it is to see this one available as a beautiful, pristine-looking print in English. Hopefully distributors start picking more of these up and remastering them because there are a lot of entertaining little treasures just waiting to find a wider audience.

As far as Satan's Slave is concerned, the first version that was available here in America was a bootleg of the 1987 Japanese VHS release from Sony Exc!ting. Naturally, this release was in full screen, didn't have English subtitles and wasn't in the best of condition but it was all we had for several decades. However, this became a rare older Indo genre film to become available on DVD with English subs when BCI / Deimos picked it up for distribution in 2008. Joko Anwar remade the film under the same title in 2017, which was a big box office success (one of the highest grossing films in Indonesian history) and won numerous awards at film festivals. That prompted a 2020 Blu-ray release of this original from Severin Films. All of the above was enough to make this one of the easiest-available and most-viewed pre-1990 Indonesian genre films there is.

Mawarti (Diana Suarkom) dies, leaving behind her grieving husband Munarto (W.D. Mochtar), college-aged daughter Rita (Siska "Karebety" / Widowati) and younger teen son Tommy (Fachrul Rozy). Shortly after the funeral, Tommy is visited Salem's Lot-style by a pale, white-eyed woman in a flowing white gown who looks suspiciously like the dead mother and comes tapping on his window late at night. She leads him out into the woods where the two have a brief conversation about something but when he wakes up the next morning he remembers nothing. While the dad is able to bury himself in work and the daughter is able to run around with her boyfriend Herman (Simon Cader) and go to disco dance parties and such, poor Tommy has no real means of distraction and seems to be taking his mother's death the hardest. One of his friends recommends he visit a fortune teller to restore some hope in his future. Tommy ends up seeing a blind clairvoyant in sunglasses, who forecasts doom for him and his family in her cards. She recommends he study black magic in order to defend himself if need be.

Soon after, things start going to hell. A mysterious woman starts calling the home, asking for Tommy and then hanging up. The doorbell rings but nobody's there. Doors and gates open, close and / or lock by themselves. Tommy starts behaving strangely, gets nosebleeds, starts reading books on black magic (and horror mags!), tries strangling his sister and seems entranced much of the time. He also has an amazing nightmare where he's led down a white tiled corridor to a sacrificial altar by a red-robed Satan and guys wearing rubber monster masks. After seeing several ghosts lurking around, Rita suspects something evil is afoot. Her boyfriend notes that since her family isn't particularly religious and they don't pray on the regular, they may have left themselves open to dark influences. Though he says that jokingly, that's precisely what's happening.

Looking for a new woman to run the household, Munarto calls an agency and requests a housekeeper. The woman who shows up, Darmina (Ruth Pelupessi), is the same sinister woman who was posing as the fortune teller and has already led Tommy astray into the world of the black arts. Soon after Darmina's arrival, she's revealed to be an evil witch who chants at an altar with a smoking cauldron, candles and a skull. Asthmatic handyman Mr. Karto (H.I.M. Damsyik) is found hanging dead in the utility shed and then Herman dies in a motorcycle accident. After Rita is tormented by Herman's bloody ghost, the father relents and brings a shaman (Adang Mansyur) in to exorcise the evil spirits. That doesn't work out as expected when he's chased around the room by flying glass shards and then killed by a chandelier!

Darmina, who eventually gets crazy eye make-up and impressive teased hair, uses her powers to bring both Karto and Herman back from the dead, then heads to the cemetery to resurrect the mother's corpse. She and the three zombies then lay siege on the home and attempt to kill the family. Islamic ulama / cleric Kiai (Doddy Sukma), who kept showing up throughout the film attempting to warn the family only to be ignored, pops in just in time with an army of torch-carrying prayer warriors to help.

This is slower-paced, more atmospheric, much more serious (there's almost no comedy) and not nearly as jarring when it comes to things like editing and continuity than most other 80s Indonesian genre films I've seen. It's also somewhat better-made, with decent acting, camerawork (by F.E.S. Tarigan) and special effects (by S. Parya, who also has a small role) and a nicely subdued synth score from one-time composer Gusti Anom. The film was rare for its time in utilizing Islamic spiritual beliefs over Christian or Buddhist but the heavy-handed moralizing about the importance of religion / praying gets to be a bit much at times. This essentially functions the same way fire-and-brimstone preachers do: ironically enough, trying to scare audiences into religious servitude, which is basically just trading one kind of slavery for another!

I've read numerous places that this is a virtual remake of, or was heavily inspired by, Don Coscarelli's Phantasm and I'm scratching my head trying to figure out where the hell that all came from. Aside from a few minor similarities like both having a young male protagonist and there being a graveyard, fortune teller and motorcycle riding, the two films have virtually nothing in common. The most blatant borrowings are that one Salem's Lot copied scene I already mentioned and The Omen (the ulama showing up at the father's office to warn him; activities of the sinister woman who shows up from a nanny agency with her resume, etc.)


Saturday, October 31, 2020

Trick or Treats (1982)

... aka: Blodig Halloween (Bloody Halloween)
... aka: Decapitator
... aka: Fatal noche de brujas (Fatal Halloween)
... aka: Terror na Noite (Terror in the Night)

Directed by:
Gary Graver

For strictly mainstream viewers, Gary Graver will probably be best remembered for his work on various Orson Welles projects, especially the ill-fated, all star cast The Other Side of the Wind, which was shot from 1970 to 1976 in seven different countries, partially financed by a relative of the last Shah of Iran, spent years being edited, fell into numerous legal problems and wasn't completed and actually released until 2018; over 10 years after Graver, and over 30 years after Welles, had passed on! For the rest of us horror, exploitation and cult film fanatics, Graver is a man who doesn't really need much of an introduction. His name is always popping on various films made from the 1960s all the way up to the mid 2000s. He was a man who wore many different hats: director, writer, editor, actor and, most especially, cinematographer.

Graver worked alongside many of the big names in U.S. exploitation drive-in films of the 70s like Roger Corman, Al Adamson and Harry Novak, later worked with the biggest names in U.S. direct-to-video films of the 80s and 90s like Fred Olen Ray, Charles Band and Jim Wynorski, directed some of his own exploitation films, shot a number of commercials, documentaries and music videos and periodically got mainstream work like heartwarming made-for-TV movies. What's really amazing is that in between his R-rated exploitation work and gigs working for Disney and NBC and doing uncredited second unit work for the likes of Steven Spielberg and John Cassavetes (among others) he was pulling double duty as a director of hardcore porn films using the alias "Robert McCallum." Graver started making them in the mid 1970s and continued on for another 20 years. Of his 140+ directorial credits, most are X rated.

I really could go on for hours about Graver's impressive and seemingly endless Z movie credentials but we'll just say that the man certainly should have known how to throw together a good exploitation movie by 1982. Should being the operative word here. Unfortunately, this painfully unfunny horror-comedy is certainly not it. In the pantheon of genre films set on All Hallows Eve, this would be the Halloween candy equivalent of those peanut butter taffy chews that come in orange and black wrappers that always lurked in the bottom of your trick-or-treat bag along with candy corn and boxes of raisins. Even as sugar junkie kids, my siblings and I were never desperate enough to actually eat those things. Straight into the trash they went!

Clearly made for the sole purpose of cashing in on the slasher movie boom of the early 1980s using Carpenter's Halloween as the basis, this is actually mostly a trick on the viewer as there's very little actual horror content here, no suspense, no gore, no style and a massive amount of fake scares, filler and flagrantly unfunny "comedy" bits. However, the meagerly budgeted movie (made for just 55 thousand dollars and released to theaters just two days before Halloween) was pretty much money in the bank... just not for Graver. Ironically enough, he ended up being tricked himself by a shady distributor who kept all of the profits!

Here's what the director had to say about the film, why it was made and how he got stiffed in an interview in Penny Blood magazine (#11)...

Millionaire industrialist Malcolm O'Keefe (Peter Jason), face buried in the Wall Street Journal, and his wife Joan (Carrie Snodgress), are having breakfast on the back patio when the doorbell rings. Next thing Malcolm knows, two orderlies are going after him with a straight jacket. After a struggle in and out of the swimming pool, they finally get it on him and haul him off to Western State Hospital. "Several years later" struggling part time actress Linda (Jacqueline Giroux) is called by her employment agency to take a babysitting job and in doing so has to pass up a chance to see her small time actor boyfriend Bret (Steve Railsback) perform a part in a Shakespeare play. Linda shows up at the Adams residence where Joan and her new husband Richard (David Carradine), who's something of a pervert, are planning on going to a Las Vegas Halloween party for the night. She's to watch over their ten-year-old son Christopher, played by Chris Graver, the director's real-life son. After the parents leave, Linda's in for a rather unpleasant night... and she's not the only one.

The chubby Christopher is a Houdini-obsessed amateur magician and prankster who spends most of the evening trying to horrify his babysitter using his arsenal of tricks. He pretends to kill himself with a guillotine, pretends to slash his own throat, pretends to drown himself, pretends to chop off his finger, shocks her with a joy buzzer, sets off firecrackers, scares her with a succession of monster masks, throws mice and cats on her and more. He's also probably the most insufferable little shit in a holiday horror until Luke in Better Watch Out (2016). What's especially annoying is that Linda falls for his lame gags over and over and over again.

Cut in between all of the pranks are equally awful scenes at the asylum where Malcolm, who was actually sane when first falsely committed but is now pretty crazy, plots to escape from the loony bin to get revenge. He gets his buddy Bert (Jean L. Clark) to distract a nurse while he stuffs rags in her mouth. He then steals her outfit and wig, punches out a night watchman and drives off in the nurse's car. He keeps making pit stops on his drive back to the house to call his former home with threatening messages ("I'm coming home to take care of you, darling!"), loses his car and forces a wino (Paul Bartel) to trade clothes with him at knife point. He doesn't even arrive home until an hour into the movie. And no one even dies until the last 20 minutes. That maybe would have been OK if the earlier scenes were any good. They're not!

With the door constantly being knocked on by trick-or-treaters, the phone constantly ringing, the sociopathic little abortion constantly running around, sticking out his tongue and spouting awful one-liners and the endless barrage of false scares, this is simply irritating to sit through. Even when it finally remembers to be a horror movie during the last 20 or so minutes with a long chase scene and a couple of tame kills (which mostly occur off-screen), it doesn't improve much.

The director's decision to cast his own son was, as is usually the case, a mistake. Yes, we know you think your child is cute and charming and entertaining, and you want to show the world how adorable and talented you think they are. Problem is, the only reason you think that is because it's your kid and no one else is going to be as enamored with them as you are especially when they can't act. So if you're planning on casting a kid and giving them an irritating lead role, the least you can do is hire a child actor with some experience so at least they don't come off so awkward.

What makes this seem like an even bigger waste is that the rest of the cast is actually pretty good, or at least they can be good in other movies. Snodgress, Railsback (who is talking on the telephone during all of his scenes), Bartel, Jason and Carradine are all actors who've had their great moments in film and TV but this is a career low point for nearly all of them. Graver's future wife Jillian Kesner has a supporting role playing Linda's film editor friend. During one bizarre scene, she and another female coworker (Nike Zachmanoglou) bitch about having to cut together cheap horror movies while we get to see footage from one of those movies that very poorly attempts to parody them.

Giroux amusingly started out in the religious film The Cross and the Switchblade (1970) starring Pat Boone but was appearing in all manner of sleazy exploitation films just a few years after that, often using aliases like Robyn Whitting or Valdesta. Among her more notable roles was playing a man-hating lesbian murderess in the fun WIP film Sweet Sugar (1972) and the lead prisoner Rosette in the classic ILSA, SHE WOLF OF THE SS (1975), though she opted not to be credited there. She also starred in the Bigfoot nudie movie The Beauties and the Beast (1973), which probably sucks but I'm still kind of intrigued by it and want to see it, and even appeared in some hardcore porn films like Graver's engaging comedy Garage Girls (1980), though she merely did still photography and acted in those and never participating in any of the sex scenes.

Giroux, who was married to Railsback, was already in her mid 30s at the time of filming and became the subject of criticism by people complaining that she was too old to play an imperiled babysitter. Personally, I never got why this was ever an issue. Who says a babysitter has to be a teenager? Besides, it's made clear that she works for a nanny agency and women of all ages do that. I thought she was actually pretty likable all things considered. There's just nothing she can really do about the terrible script and pacing, the unsure tone, the generic library music, the unimaginative direction and the numerous other issues this film has.

The cast also includes Catherine E. Coulson (The Log Lady from Twin Peaks) and X-rated actress Tara Aire as nurses, former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Tim Rossovich and former Houston Oilers quarterback Dan Pastorini as orderlies and John Blyth Barrymore in the horror parody. Graver, who also wrote, produced, edited and shot it, also appears in a brief cameo as a diner worker. Welles is given a credit as "magical advisor" even though he merely lent them some props to use.

This was first distributed on VHS by Vestron and became a fixture on late night TV afterward. In 2013, Code Red released this on DVD along with a slew of extras, including a commentary track with Giroux, Jason and the young star.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...