Thursday, June 20, 2024

Massacre at Central High (1976)

... aka: Blackboard Massacre
... aka: Döden på college (Death in College)
... aka: Les baskets se déchaînent (Sneakers Go Wild) (?)
... aka: Massacre
... aka: Massacre no Colégio (College Massacre)
... aka: Massaker in Klasse 13 (Massacre in Class 13)
... aka: Sexy Jeans

Directed by:
Rene Daalder

On a 1981 episode of Sneak Previews where he was limited to highlighting just three films, Roger Ebert singled this out as one of his favorite "guilty pleasures," but there's nothing to feel guilty about here. This is simply a good movie. Despite the episode's supposed topic, Ebert clearly knew that himself or else he wouldn't have referred to it as "an intelligent and uncompromising allegory about the psychology of violence." Hence, not so much a "guilty pleasure" as a hidden gem, and this is one instance where it truly was hidden for awhile. It first got lost in a sea of sleazy, high school-set drive-in exploitation films popular in the late 70s and then got lost in a sea of slasher flicks once it was theatrically re-released in the early 80s. The latter issue reared its ugly head yet again when it hit home video, with VHS artwork trying to sell it as a slasher. People at the time were either disappointed by what they saw or pleasantly surprised.

There's some fun play with incongruity right out of the gate. The font used for the title screen screams After School Special, as does the cornball opening credits theme song "Crossroads" ("You're at the crossroads of your life... crossroads of your life... a runner chasing dreams... that could come true...like the pebbles on the beach... well within your reach..."). I honestly don't even know if the aggressive cheesiness was intentional or just a sign of the times but, regardless, it works as an amusing bit of contrast to what we'll see later on. In fact, that contrast is right in your face as the song fades and one of the first images we're greeted with is a swastika being painted on a high school locker.

Transferring to a new California high school, David (Derrel Maury) soon discovers he'll have more to worry about than first day jitters. Strangely, almost nobody will talk to him, or help him find stuff, or answer any of his questions. Nearly everyone is quiet, unfriendly or downright hostile, but at least he already knows, and is friends with, one guy there. Mark (Andrew Stevens) used to go to his previous school and owes David a "big favor" for helping him out of an unspecified previous jam, so he introduces him to the popular clique he normally runs with. Unfortunately, had said clique been around in WWII-era Germany they would have been called Hitlerjugend.

Referring to Bruce (Ray Underwood) as a mere bully doesn't quite do the guy justice. "Fascist dictator" or "merciless tyrant" is a little more accurate. He sets the rules. He tells people where they can park and who can talk to who, and decides who's worthy of everyone's malice. He's surrounded himself with a pack of yes men, like Craig (Steve Bond), Paul (Damon Douglas) and, yes, even Mark; all of whom help him enforce his rules. They're kind of like the gestapo, and these guys somehow seem to be everywhere; always watching, always listening, always breathing down the back of your neck. Anyone who's an individual or outsider, exhibits independent thought or defies the group, and anyone Bruce suspects may try to usurp his power, must be dealt with accordingly.

Rodney (Steven Sikes), whose main transgression against the group is having a junky mode of transport, will have an even junkier one after they carjack him and smash his vehicle up. "Lard ass" Oscar (Jeffrey Winner) is threatened with a switchblade in gym class and whipped with towels in the locker room. "Geek" Arthur (Dennis Kort) has the audacity to ask for a late fee and is pummeled with books while they trash the library. Spoony (Robert Carradine) has a little more spunk to him at least. As a sign of "social protest" he paints a swastika on Bruce's locker and then talks back at him ("You don't believe in free speech?") and all that gets him is a beating. Among the students, Theresa (Kimberly Beck - FRIDAY THE 13TH PART IV) is one of the few who has somehow managed to maintain her identity, and the ability to voice her opinion, at least to a degree, but that's primarily because she's dating Mark and can use him as a shield.

If David were a weaker man, he'd accept the invite into the "in group" and just go along with them to make life easier on himself, but he's just not that kind of guy. Bruce senses it too right away. He now has some real opposition. Mark tries to pacify the group by telling them his buddy is simply "aloof," but that becomes increasingly difficult to believe as David continues to do his own thing. He befriends Rodney and helps him fix his wrecked car and steps in to save two girls; Mary (Rainbeaux Smith) and Jane (Lani O'Grady), from getting gang raped. David's influence also seems to be rubbing off onto Theresa, who starts becoming more outspoken.

While David can influence and inspire, he can't do it all alone and nobody is really stepping up to the plate to help him out ("Don't you people ever fight back?"). While he's underneath a car working one day, Bruce and his gang show up to confront him, knock the jack out and crush his legs, inadvertently kicking a hornet's nest in the process. David already has some anger issues and the only way he's been able to keep those reigned in is by religiously running. Now that he's crippled and that's not an option, what's he to do? Arrange for certain people to die in mysterious "accidents," that's what! After a hang-glider hits some power lines, water is drained out of a pool at an inopportune time and a van goes over a cliff, the reign of terror from Bruce and company ends.

Now that the school is free from their tyranny, another issue sets in: The uncertainty of what to do after being liberated and suddenly having no leader, no rules and complete freedom. How is order maintained, and fairness established, without gradually falling right back into the same abusive, oppressive system that Bruce and his gang were instituting? Well, according to this film, it isn't. It's a cycle bound to repeat indefinitely, just with new players. Victims become assailants, the previously marginalized become the new bullies, and everyone plots and schemes and engages in power plays until one of them claws their way back to the top of the pecking order and everyone else falls back in line. Rinse and repeat.

While a very promising English-language debut for Daalder, this unfortunately did not lead to much else of note from the Dutch-born director. The expected violence, sex and humor needed for commercial appeal are present and accounted for, but with a strong vein of social and political commentary to keep things consistently interesting. Once I caught on to where this was going and started paying closer attention to the characters and their dialogue / interactions is when I realized just how focused and well-structured the script is. 

Everything in here is essentially in support of a larger thesis statement... a pretty grim, though also very accurate, one. True freedom and equality for all scares the hell out of the supposed "freedom-loving" majority, who then start to crave the "structure" given to them by authoritarians and fascists, who are easily able to pivot into positions of power by promising to leave them alone and instead go after whatever powerless weak / poor / marginalized group(s) they can propagandize into enemies. So yeah, not much has changed here.

This is frequently compared to Michael Lehmann's black comedy Heathers (1988), which wasn't that well received upon release but now has a huge cult following and is one of the most popular comedies of the entire decade. Though the two films have some divergent commentary, I still think those comparisons are apt. Both feature a mysterious outsider / new boy in town threatening established high school hierarchy, the bullying, the dissatisfied member of the in crowd who revolts, the series of murders, the failures of adults / authority figures (the ones in Heathers are inept while they're completely absent here), right on down to the attempt to blow up the entire school at the very end. Considering this a precursor is absolutely not out of line, though Heathers is more pointed toward teen-specific issues.

After coming and going to little notice in 1976, a re-release four years later finally garnered this some attention, with Vincent Canby of the New York Times even singling it out as one of his twenty favorite movies of the year. It was also championed by the likes of Leonard Maltin and the aforementioned Roger Ebert. However, that apparently didn't help the director's career any. He wouldn't make his next feature, the seldom-seen Population 1 (1987), until over a decade later, and it wouldn't be until ten years after that he'd make another. None of his other films were as well-received as this one, though I personally got some enjoyment out of his weird, polarizing eco-thriller Habitat (1997).

The performances are uneven, but mostly serviceable. Stevens gives one of the better showings as the second male lead, who learns that doing what's right for yourself and just doing what's right aren't necessarily one in the same. The most effective performance here though is from the little-known Underwood, who's perfect in his nasty role. He'd go on to play another preppy, sociopathic jerk in the Carrie knock-off JENNIFER (1979) a few years later and sadly passed away in the early 90s before even hitting his 40th birthday.

Apparently Italian audiences of the day weren't the least bit interested in what the film had to say because they added hardcore sex inserts to turn it into a porno called Sexy Jeans. This version was also released to home video in the 1980s in Italy. Aside from that anomaly, I believe all of the rest of the releases, including the 2020 Blu-ray from Synapse, are the same. This was never a especially gory film so nothing really needed to be excised for rating's purposes on home video.

Monday, June 10, 2024

Demond Doll (1987)

... aka: Doll, The
... aka: Hell Doll
... aka: Infernal Doom
... aka: Joker, The
... aka: Muerte infernal (Infernal Death)

Directed by:
Roberto Guinar (uncredited)
Ronald Wertheim

According to Señor Hernandez over at Trash-Mex, who was able to speak to the film's producer, this ultra-obscure curio was filmed in English in Mexico City in the late 80s. It was released theatrically in the U.S. soon after by Great World Pictures out of Los Angeles. Don't worry, I've never heard of them before either. The poster has an R rating on it which, unless they're lying (wouldn't be the first time), means it had been submitted to the MPAA. After what one can assume was an extremely limited theatrical run, the film was never released on VHS here in the U.S. but did turn up on home video in Mexico in 1992. Without the producer's authorization, someone had gotten their hands on it, re-dubbed it into Spanish and re-titled it Muerte infernal ("Infernal Death"). 

Nearly two decades later, the original English-language version mysteriously surfaced again, this time being hawked on DVD-R by bootleggers under another new title (Hell Doll). This cut also contains extra scenes (including stock footage of bullfighting and Brazilian Carnival dancers) that had been removed from the Mexican VHS version. At around the same time, Guinar uploaded a (rather sloppily put together) two minute trailer for "Hell Doll" to his Youtube page, which can be viewed RIGHT HERE.

While this is currently listed nearly everywhere as a 1992 release under the Muerte infernal title, I'm going to roll with 1987 per the end credits copyright date and use the title on the original U.S. theatrical poster, Demond Doll. And, yes, even having to type out "Demond" irks the hell out of me. I want to call this "Demon Doll" so damn bad. Was it supposed to be "Demondoll," one word, and they accidentally added an extra d? Was it actually supposed to be "Demond" and, if so, what does that even mean? Figuring this was just a word I'd never heard of before, I tried to translate it (nope) and look it up (nada). The only thing I came up with was "a boy's name of American origin that means 'of man'". What am I missing here folks?

Attractive young widow Julia Mercero (Erika Carlsson - THE DRACULA DYNASTY) runs "The House of Dolls" shop out of her home, along with her grown son Lawrence (Benny Corral), who designs creepy masks. Right away, you can tell this isn't your usual mother / son relationship, at least not outside of Appalachia. She longingly watches him as he washes up and parades around the home in a negligee. He's needy, overly sensitive, whines like a young child ("Ma-ma-mommy please!") and can't seem to keep his hands off of her. The two run their fingers through each other's hair and over each other's faces, hug, hold hands, rub noses, kiss on the lips, lie on bed together in each other's arms and do other icky things.

Even though these two clearly share too much already, one thing mom's not ready to divulge is what's really in a large wooden box with holes drilled in it down in the store room. She claims it's a wedding keepsake, "a very special doll," gifted to her from her late husband, who died before Lawrence was even born. When the son asks, "Is he big?" her face lightens up as she responds "He is!" Since he has the maturity level of a young child, Lawrence refuses to STFU about the doll, driving his mum crazy in the process. After she loses it and goes off on him, he has a tantrum and runs away.

Lawrence goes to visit his female friend, Margaret (Sandra Felix), a costume designer, who's been helping him put on weird "theater" performances in the living room for the mom. When Margaret comes on to him, he finds himself unable to have sex with her. He runs back home and starts sobbing, but thankfully his mother is around to comfort him. And, by "comfort," I unfortunately mean making out with him and allowing him to fondle her breasts and crotch (!!) Oh yeah, and the doll is finally allowed out of the box. Said doll, called Yerzo (Aurelio Pérez), is played by a heavily painted-up dwarf in a medieval jester outfit, a pageboy wig and silver sequin gloves (!) that, according to a note left with it, houses the spirit of a man who'd been executed for "sexual atrocities" by a king's court long ago.

After word gets round about Lawrence's impotence, two bullies berate him and throw both him and his bicycle into a fountain. He responds to that by riding off the edge of a bridge and ends up on suicide watch at a nuthouse under the care of doctors Emmanuel Richter (Roger Cudney) and Holly O'Hara (Yria Bazegui). Per hospital rules, he's not allowed any visitors, including his mother, but they do allow him some things from home, including Yerzo, who comes in handy when a nympho nurse ("Hellen Goyas" / Ellen Gollas) sneaks into his room and tries to molest him. Instead, she ends up getting her clothes ripped off and bludgeoned with a puppet head by the "doll."

The plot starts to sputter a bit after Lawrence escapes the institution and disappears from most of the rest of the film. Focus then mostly swings over to the two doctors and their relationship, which seems like an excuse to squeeze in an awkward sex scene. After the male half dies of a heart attack because someone put a skeleton at his front door (!), the female doctor attempts to help Julia, while the Margaret character comes back into the picture and tries to befriend her. Whatever they were trying to do here, it doesn't really work.

Occasionally this will cut to the son and the doll laughing maniacally, wagging their tongues and making strange noises. A despondent-looking Lawrence is briefly seen sitting on the patio wearing a short cami dress (!) while the dwarf attempts to sexually assault Dr. O'Hara and then attacks her with a knife while she runs around her home topless and screaming. The ending suggests that not everything is what it seems, but it's too muddled to really tell for sure.

Though obviously low budget and highly flawed, this is saved to an extent because it just does its own trashy, outrageous, bizarre thing and becomes a kind of singular warped vision in the process. Parts of it are genuinely creepy and disturbing while others are clearly played for laughs or downright dumb. One thing it's generally not, is predictable.

There's some decent camerawork prowling around the home looking at creepy dolls and masks, plus two very bizarre original songs ("The Joker" and "Hungerin'") written by the director and featuring the vocals of leads Corral (who does some spoken word thing) and Carlsson (who actually sings). I had to settle for watching the cut Spanish dubbed version since I couldn't find the English one. In the process I did miss a flashback scene showing the dwarf slicing off a woman's breast while wearing a powdered wig.

So who actually directed this thing? Mex-Trash refers to Roberto Guinar as the "writer, producer and co-director." However, he's only listed as the producer on the poster, and is only listed in the on-screen credits as producer and actor (for a cameo appearance as a delivery man). The actual credited director and writer is Ronald Wertheim, who has a filmography of soft and hardcore porn stretching all the way back the late 60s. He wrote classic era adult films like Memories Within Miss Aggie (1974) and Through the Looking Glass (1976) and was the production manager (and also appears in) Deep Throat (1972). In an interview with Rialto Report, a former associate described Wertheim as being "clearly mentally unstable."

Credited with the "original idea" is Alfred Salazar, who I have no doubt in my mind is actually the prolific  Alfredo Salazar, a man who had his hand in all kinds of Mexican films as far back as the late 1940s. He wrote the AZTEC MUMMY (1957) series, the Jekyll & Hyde inspired THE MAN AND THE MONSTER (1959), lots of wrestling movies starring Las Luchadoras or Santo and, fittingly enough, CURSE OF THE DOLL PEOPLE (1961). Salazar also directed a handful of films, including the weird THE RIDER OF THE SKULLS (1965), the pervy A RAT IN THE DARKNESS (1979) and Diabolical Inheritance (1993), which is yet another dwarf-playing-a-killer-doll flick that also happens to star Guinar. I guess Salazar could be considered the Mexican answer to Charles Band with his doll fetish.

Also quite interesting that Carlsson, Corral, Cudney and Gollas all appeared in the Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi hit Total Recall a few years later. There really has to be some kind of interesting story there. Corral would go on to become one of the top music video directors in Latin America and has worked with Mark Anthony, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, Julio Iglesias and many others over the years. Considering how most people who make it in show business like to hide their association with films like this later on, Corral amusingly lists this film twice on his resume, first as a 1989 film called "The Jocker" (sic) and directed by Wertheim, and then under the 1992 Muerte infernal title and directed by Guinar.

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