Sunday, December 29, 2013

Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out! (1989)

... aka: Blind Terror
... aka: Silent Night, Deadly Night 3

Directed by:
Monte Hellman

SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984) was a routine slasher flick whose chief novelty was having its axe-slinging psycho killer decked out in Santa garb. The inept first follow-up, SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT PART 2 (1987), followed the exploits of Ricky, the brother of the original film's killer, who also eventually found a Santa suit to wear after escaping a mental institution. At the end of Part 2, Billy was blasted with a shotgun right after decapitating a nun. This entry picks up right where that one left off. Scanning the credits, this has a much higher pedigree than the previous two films, with known actors (headlined by Robert Culp) and a director who'd previously made the critically acclaimed sleeper hit Two Lane Backdrop (1971). There's also an interesting link with later David Lynch film, with cast members Richard Beymer, Eric DaRe and Laura Harring all on board. Beymer and DaRe (the son of Aldo Ray and casting agent Johanna Ray) both had recurring roles on Lynch's short-lived Twin Peaks (1990-91) series, while the sexy Harring (who became the very first Latina to win Miss USA crown in 1985) later snagged the lead role in Lynch's acclaimed, award-winning Mulholland Dr. (2001). But is any of that enough to lift this above the ordinary? Sadly, not really.

Despite being shot in the head (though he's actually shown being shot in the chest in Part 2), Ricky Caldwell (Bill Moseley) is still alive, but in a comatose state in some hospital. Apparently because the top of his head got blow off by the shotgun blast and his brain was "surgically reconstructed," he's now outfitted in some ridiculous head contraption / skull cap made of metal and glass which you can see his brain through! Dream researcher Dr. Newbury (Beymer) is conducting some sort of experiment using Ricky and Laura Anderson (Samantha Scully); a young, blind woman with psychic abilities who recently lost both of her parents in a plane crash. The doctor is hoping to establish a telephathic link between the two so that Laura can possibly communicate with him, though after she starts seeing what's in Ricky's mind (insert flashbacks from the first Silent Night), she's ready to abandon the project all together. Newbury gives her a few days over the holiday to mull it over. Laura, her brother Chris (DaRe, rocking a truly hideous 80s hair band curly'do) and his new girlfriend Jerri (Harring, who eventually has a topless scene in a bathtub) then head off toward Granny's (Elizabeth Hoffman) house for Christmas dinner.

Immediately after Laura leaves, Ricky awakens, kills a bitchy old receptionist and a drunk guy dressed up as Santa ("Hey vegetable, who's your favorite singer? Perry Coma?"), then just walks right out of the hospital door. Despite being dressed in a hospital gown and having his brain exposed for all to see (!), Ricky somehow successfully manages to hitch a ride from a trucker who asks, "What happened to you, man? Did you get a hair transplant?" Ricky kills him, steals his truck, decapitates a gas station attendant who's in the middle of having phone sex and then beats the others to Granny's house and kills her. When Laura, Chris and Jerri show up, it's their turn. The idea that he's set off by the color red (on a sweater, a wrapped present, a car...) is carried over from Part 2. While all that's going on, wisecracker Lt. Connelly (Culp), one of the cops who originally put Ricky out of commission, shows up to investigate, and he and Dr. Newbury make a mad dash for Granny's house to try to save Laura and company. Well, not so mad they don't have time to pull over the car to take a leak mid-trip!

This actually opens very strongly, with a well-done nightmare sequence featuring Laura running through all-white corridors and rooms and encountering both Ricky and a killer Santa Claus. The psychic connection angle is a fairly interesting departure from the traditional slash-n-hack format of the previous entries. This is also, technically-speaking, better-made, better-acted and more ambitious than the first two films in this series... but there's just something that feels off about the whole thing. Some of the dialogue and various silly scenes, albeit sometimes amusing, hint that the filmmakers aren't really taking much of this seriously, though there's still this dark, dreary cloud lingering over the entire film, anyway. It's a combination that's perhaps a little different from the norm, but it's so awkward and clumsy it doesn't work. Slasher fans are also going to be disappointed that's there's almost no gore and nearly every single murder takes place off-screen.

As an inside joke, Hellman has Roger Corman's public domain cheapie The Terror (1963), which he served as 2nd Unit Director on, playing on several TV sets throughout the film. His daughter, Melissa Hellman, plays Beymer's assistant and Leonard Mann, an American actor who usually appeared in Italian productions, has one scene as Laura's shrink. Lion's Gate released a box set containing this, Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation (1990) and Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toymaker (1991) earlier this month.


Body Beneath, The (1970)

... aka: Vampire's Thirst, The

Directed by:
Andy Milligan

Graham Ford (Colin Gordon), a new arrival in London from Canada, is awoken from his nap by Reverend Alexander Algernon Ford (Gavin Reed) and his wife Alicia (Susan Heard), distant relatives who'd like to invite him and his wife Anna (Susan Clark) to dinner. Alexander has just arrived there himself from Ireland, moved into Carfax Abbey and opened a new church in the area called Old Souls Church. He's talkative, friendly, nosy and more than a little strange, and not only because priests typically don't go around quoting Oscar Wilde, but also because he seems to know much about Graham and his wife without ever having ever them. Alicia is an oddball herself. She refuses to talk to anyone and whispers everything directly into her husband's ear for him to relay to others. Regardless, Graham accepts their invitation. Anna, on the other hand, has just had an odd encounter with three blue-faced blonde women at a local cemetery. Meanwhile, Susan Ford (Jackie Skarvellis) has just told her lover of two years, artist Paul (Richmond Ross), that she's pregnant. The two decide to get married soon, so it's a good time for the Reverend to get in contact with her via letter. They could use someone to officiate their wedding.

The Reverend and his wife turn out to be centuries-old vampires, who lead a pack of similar bloodsuckers. Sunlight doesn't kill them but does weaken them and Alicia has to administer blood transfusions to her hubby in the upstairs bedroom and apply leeches to him when his blood pressure gets too high. They're assisted by a hyperactive, reluctant hunchback named Spool (Berwick Kaler), who was abandoned by his family as a child after his stepbrother pushed him in front of a bus. When Susan shows up to visit, they drug her drink and then lock her in an upstairs bedroom. The Reverend explains to her that she's their only hope in carrying on the family bloodline. Apparently, lots of inbreeding in the family has weakened them and now they need new blood, so to speak. Susan will be kept there and be forced to keep popping out one baby after another to procreate a stronger breed of Ford. Meanwhile, at Graham and Anna's home, Anna is behaving strangely. The three blue-faced ladies had bitten her on the neck in the graveyard, turning her into a vampire. She drugs her husband's tea and then lets the Reverend and the vampire ladies in to kill Graham.

Another relative - Candace Ford (Emma Jones) - is kidnapped and brought to Carfax Abbey, where they plot to use her as their personal blood supply. Spool is forbidden to speak to their prisoners and, when he's caught talking to Candace, he's taken outside and nailed against a tree! Susan's boyfriend eventually shows up looking for her and notices the Reverend doesn't cast a reflection before he's booted out. A maid tries to help him find his missing fiancé, but Alicia jams sewing needles into her eyeballs and Paul is locked up in a room with Susan, where they await their death. Eventually, a vampire gathering shot through a Vaseline-smeared lens is held, where a female vampire proclaims Americans "the scum of the Earth" and says they're all "pimps, prostitutes and religious fanatics" when the Reverend entertains the idea of them relocating to the States.

This has much in common with the director's other films from the same time period and yet seems somewhat different. The Gothic horror trappings and British setting are similar, as is the dialogue-heavy script and theatrical acting and costumes. However, this one has a modern day setting, better production values and actually (gasp!) cuts it somewhat as an actual movie. The acting, editing, costumes and photography are all better than usual for the director. However, in Milligan world, competence and restraint are both a good and a bad thing. It's good in that this will be easier to swallow to the masses and proves the widely-panned director could indeed craft a mainstream, competent film.. It's a bad thing in that it's not as wild, quirky, bizarre, funny or memorable as some of his other, rougher-around-the-edges efforts like TORTURE DUNGEON (1970) or BLOOD (1974). Perhaps the fact this was made for a different production company (Cinemedia Films) instead of William Mishkin is what made the difference. Milligan also edited (as "Gerald Jackson") and did both the costumes (as Raffine) and sound (as "Joi Gogan") for this one.

Something Weird have released a nice DVD for this one, which includes lots of Milligan trailers as well as the director's very interesting, black-and-white gay bathhouse drama Vapors (1965), which runs 32 minutes and is actually quite good itself (not to mention very daring for its time).

Hitcher, The (1986)

... aka: Highway Killer, The
... aka: Hitcher, the Highway Killer

Directed by:
Robert Harmon

"My mother told me never to do this," smirks Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) as he pulls off to the side of the road to pick up hitchhiker John Ryder (Rutger Hauer) on a dark and stormy night. Not to let him down, John wastes no time in the "acting intimidating, shady and all-around psychotic" department. He refuses to tell Jim where he's going, stares at him and grabs his inner thigh just as he's about to pull over to help a stranded motorist. Jim mistakes it for a pass, pulls his car over and tells John the ride is over. John refuses to budge, says just enough to ease Jim's mind and then they're back on the road. And then John confesses that the car they'd just passed belongs to the last guy who gave him a lift and that he "cut off his legs... and his arms... and his head..." I guess mom was right after all. The Hitcher sets up its horror premise right out of the gate: There you are out in the middle of nowhere late at night with few others around and trapped in your car with someone clearly psychotic. What do you do? Well, you try to play it cool until you can lose them... Only this strange, mysterious man turns out to be about as easy to lose as one of those face-huggers from Alien.

Jim's first possible attempt to escape comes when they pass through a construction stop, but John pulls out a switchblade and gives a simple-enough warning: "Don't." When asked just what he wants, John is also rather direct: "I want you to stop me." Jim finally manages to push him out of his car, but his nightmare has only just begun. John seems to somehow appear everywhere. He murders a family of three, kills them and leaves their bodies in their station wagon along the side of the road for Jim to discover, kills a couple who give him a lift and then uses his truck to harass Jim along the dusty, desolate Northern Texas roads he's traveling through. After barely escaping a gas station explosion, Jim ends up at a diner where he meets waitress Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and is left a nasty clue in his French fries that Ryder has even been there. Cops show up, arrest Jim and haul him off to the station for questioning.

At the station, strangely enough, Jim discovers that his wallet and the car registration are missing so he can't even properly identify himself and that Ryder has planted a bloody switchblade in his pocket to implicate him in the murders. He's promptly thrown into a cell, but the mysterious psycho comes there too and kills all the cops. Jim flees into the desert, has multiple other run-ins with Ryder and many more people (primarily police officers) die. Now no one's going to believe the poor kid! Luckily, Nash - who Jim bumps into once again aboard a bus - does, and helps him escape from the cops. She's repaid for her help by getting tied to two semi trucks and pulled into two. Just what exactly is going on? Who is John Ryder? Why is he terrorizing and trying to implicate Jim in a bunch of needless killings?

The Hitcher opts to go an extremely ambiguous route for quite awhile as the extremely unpleasant story unfolds. For about the first hour or so, one could even twist and turn the various events to where Jim is actually the killer and John doesn't even exist. However, that's all taken care of once Leigh's character, and then numerous others, actually see him. That then opens up numerous other questions about John Ryder that Eric Red's screenplay isn't exactly ready to answer. If we're to believe that John is a flesh-and-blood psycho, then there's way too much coincidence on display for this to be the least bit believable. The man certainly must have otherworldly powers to pretty much be everywhere he is at just the right time. He's able to anticipate nearly all of Jim's moves, can miraculously shoot down a moving helicopter with a pistol in one shot and shows up in places he'd have no clue where to be without possessing some powerful ESP abilities. Since his existence as a mortal - albeit a highly perceptive and intelligent one - is ultimately established, the level of exaggeration throughout equips this with a higher "Yeah, righhhht" quotient than usual; particularly on repeat viewings. Yet despite those major flaws, this is still a gripping, exciting, suspenseful and very well-made film. The oddly intimate and nearly-homoerotic relationship between killer and prey provides some additional interest, though a hidden meaning is left open enough to swing either way, so to speak.

Props can be sent out to nearly the entire technical crew for their work here, particularly the editor and cinematographer. Excellent locations are used throughout and this also boasts some of the most thrilling car crash scenes you'll see. Harmon had secured the director job because of a good 30-minute short he'd previously made called China Lake (1983), which also involved a psycho prowling desert highways and itself was remade as the TV movie The China Lake Murders in 1990. Harmon originally wanted Terence Stamp for the psycho role here, though it's difficult now to imagine anyone else other than Hauer (who's perfect) playing this enigmatic part. The rest of the cast - including Jeffrey DeMunnBilly Green Bush, Jack Thibeau, Gene Davis, Armin Shimerman, Jon Van Ness and Henry Darrow (all playing small roles as law enforcement officers) - do their jobs.

Upon release, the reviews were extremely mixed (leaning toward negative from most of the majors) and this didn't exactly set the box office on fire. Nevertheless, the film picked up enough of a following over the years to spawn The Hitcher II: I've Been Waiting (2003), with Howell reprising his role, and a (critically panned) 2007 remake.

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