Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Laughing Dead, The (1989)

... aka: Ritual Macabro
... aka: Sacrifices
... aka: S.P. Somtow's The Laughing Dead

Directed by:
"S.P. Somtow" (Somtow Sucharitkul)

Father Ezekiel O'Sullivan (Tim Sullivan) of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church is put in charge of leading a Tucson, Arizona community college's “annual archaeology tour.” Their destination is the village of Todos Santos in the province of Oaxaca, Mexico, where they'll be checking out some ancient Mayan ruins and witnessing the All Soul's Day “festival of the Laughing Dead.” Seems an odd trip for a Catholic priest to be involved with, but O'Sullivan wants the students to see a “dark part of the human psyche” and he's also recently been haunted by disturbing dreams that are making him struggle with his faith. A decade earlier he fell in love with a nun named Marie-Therese, who he had sex with in a confessional booth. Finding herself pregnant, Marie-Therese then fled the church and has been raising their son on her own ever since; something that's been eating away at the troubled priest for years. Also coming along on the long bus trip are Clarisse Lemming (Krista Keim) and her husband Wilbur (Larry "Kagen" / Coven), a pair of uptight crystal and karma obsessed New Age weirdos, the loud, vulgar and obnoxious Mr. Dozois (Raymond Ridenour), the prissy Mr. Frost (Gregory Frost), troubled teenage stowaway Laurie Shigenaga (Premika Eaton, the director's sister) and some others who are given no personalities.

O'Sullivan will soon have to face both his past demons and some brand new ones when Marie-Therese, now going by the name of Tessie Smith (Wendy Webb), joins the tour, feeling it's the perfect opportunity to introduce the guilt-stricken priest to their son Ivan (Patrick Roskowick). Ivan's such a foul-mouthed punk even his own mom refers to him as “Ivan the Terrible” and “the little monster,” but she thinks all he needs is a father in his life. Ivan, on the other hand, can't believe his mother's “got the hots for a God damn bible beater” and blames the priest for all their problems (“It's all your fucking fault preacher dude! You remind her of all the bad old days when she was a fucking nun!”) Two days into the trip, the bus hits something that turns out to be the corpse of a little girl who's been wrapped in cloth and tied up. Two Mayan priests then materialize in the middle of the road, chant something and disappear in a cloud of smoke, along with the little girl's body. Undeterred by this bizarre incident, the bus continues on to their destination.

Upon arriving in the small village of Todos Santos, everyone begins exploring around and meeting the locals. Laurie reveals that she ran away because her father is dying and she can't handle it, but begins opening up when she meets mullet-y research assistant Cal Effner (Ryan Effner) and falls in love (“Thank God, somebody who doesn't look like he's from a Fellini movie!”). Father O'Sullivan tries to get to know his son but is derailed in his plans when he meets Dr. Um-tzek (played by the director), who behaves strangely and shares his name with the Mayan “God of Death.” Um-tzek asks for the priest's help in exorcising his “daughter,” but the girl instead rips her heart right out of her chest, rips O'Sullivan's heart out of his and then swaps them. Now possessed, Father O'Sullivan is the “Death God” and roams around in a daze saying things like “I am the blood star... rising!” It all has something to do with the planet of Mars, a series of “preliminary” killings, an ancient codex, a Mayan ritual, a portal to another dimension, rebirth, a blood sacrifice of one's son who knew not his father and blah blah blah.

There's no two ways about it, The Laughing Dead is a hot mess, Thankfully, though, it's at least a lively, entertaining and seldom boring hot mess! In the bad corner we have some of the most awful, awkward, amateurish actors you'll ever see playing extremely unlikable characters spewing some of the most laughably inane dialogue you'll ever hear (“A human soul has been cast adrift, sailing down the karmic maelstrom of death and rebirth!”). The plot is ridiculously and unnecessarily contrived to the point where you won't know what's going on from one minute to the next. There are continuity errors galore, too many annoying characters who refuse to die, horribly jarring switches from seriousness to comedy and the ending... Whew, just wait until the ending! I'll try not to spoil anything major just to say it involves a basketball game with zombies (!) and two of the characters transforming into giant rubbery monsters to do battle. One is a dinosaur-looking Quetzalcoatl and the other looks like an oversized Ghoulie with a magical amulet embedded in its head. I had to pick my jaw up off the floor watching some of this.

On the plus side, clearly a decent chunk of change was put down to make this film. Though the look is often on the cheap / grainy side, the filming locations are good and the art direction, sets and costumes are all - I kid you not - about on the level of Hollywood production you'd see from this same time. Perhaps the best thing of all is that this is loaded with wonderful 80s gore from John Carl Buechler and his Magic Media Industries Inc. crew. We get to see a head crushed by a bus tire, a decapitated head flying out a window and landing in a basketball net, hearts ripped out and shoved into mouths, guts pulled from stomachs, an animated blood-spurting torso, a C-section nightmare where a grown child pops out of a woman's belly, rotting zombies and a fist punching through a head and ripping out brains. The most memorable gore moment, however, features a guy getting his arm ripped off and shoved down his own throat, where you can see the wiggling fingers underneath the skin of his neck. The various effects are frequently great and even the ones that aren't so great are still fun.

Director Sucharitkul is an interesting cat. Born in Thailand, but educated in England before moving to the U.S., Sucharikul was an accomplished composer and conductor, artistic director for the Bangkok Opera Society and also a science fiction and horror writer who was the long-standing president of the Horror Writers Association. Many of the “actors” seen here (Edward Bryant, Tim Powers and others) are actually genre writers themselves. Sucharitkul not only directed, wrote and co-starred (as “S.P. Somtow”), but he also did the (very good) music score using his birth name. In his role as the evil priest, he's actually far more colorful and amusing than the rest of the cast and has a hilarious scene acting like a flamboyant, eye-rolling queen (“I really don't enjoy killing... that much!”) while killing and cutting the hearts out of a succession of blue-faced children while going on and on about wanting to retire so he can become an investment banker (!?) He later manages to top even that weirdness by appearing in a hallucination scene dressed in full drag as a nurse!

A lengthy, behind-the-scenes article written by the director himself was published in a 1989 issue of Gorezone Magazine to help promote the film, though this ended up never actually getting an official release here in America. It was however released in Japan, Thailand, the UK (on both DVD and VHS on the Midnite Movies label), France, Spain, Germany, Brazil, the Netherlands and numerous other countries, sometimes re-dubbed. A 2012 bootleg DVD-R of subpar quality from Desert Island Films surfaced in 2012 but appears to have been discontinued. Forrest J. Ackerman and Len Wein (best known for creating the X-Men character “Wolverine”) can be briefly seen as a corpse falling out of a wall onto the floor.

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