Saturday, January 4, 2014

Initiation, The (1984)

Directed by:
Larry Stewart

It started with fifteen and now it's down to just four. Who said being a sorority pledge was easy? It's definitely not when you're a sorority pledge in a horror flick. First you have to get naked and then you have to die. Sorry ladies, but those are the rules. At the mercy of mean pledge leader Megan (Frances Peterson), the latest crop of new inductees at the Delta Rho Chi house has been narrowed down to just a few. There's virtuous nice girl Marcia (Marilyn Kagan), slutty Alison ("Deborah Morehart" aka future soap opera star Hunter Tylo), reluctant Beth (Paula Knowles) and the troubled Kelly (Daphne Zuniga). Kelly has been having a recurring nightmare featuring a little girl walking in on her parents having sex and then stabbing her dad before another man barges and is accidentally caught on fire. 300 miles away, we pay a visit to the Fireside Sanitarium; a place full of cliché horror movie nutcase behavior. Moving down our checklist, we can mark off "Woman staring at a turned-off TV screen," "Woman pretending to knit" "Man who drools and licks the walls" "Woman sucking thumb and staring at a pencil," "Woman whose face we never see because she figures into the plot" and of course that old stand-by "Guy in football helmet hitting himself on the head with a ping pong paddle over and over again." A man (Robert Dowdell) with serious fire damage to his face and body lurks around outside clutching a three-pronged garden claw. He sneaks in later that night to let all of the patients out. Someone murders the bitchy Nurse Ratched wanna-be and steals her car.

Because of her nightmares, graduate student / psychology professor Peter Adams (James Read), who's working on his "doctorate in parapsychology," begins hooking Kelly up to machinery and trying to analyze her "classic Freudian dream." He and his research assistant (Joy Jones) soon come to the conclusion that this isn't a nightmare, but a flashback. It seems Kelly's wealthy parents; Frances (Vera Miles) and Dwight (Clu Gulager) Fairchild, have been hiding a few things from their daughter. Dad doesn't get to relay much info because he's stabbed and decapitated with a machete when he tries to sneak off to see his mistress. Mom, however, doesn't want her daughter being examined or for her to see Peter any more for fear that the secret will be revealed. Either way, whoever escaped from the nuthouse is lurking around and ready to spill some blood... and just in time for the big sorority initiation. Their final challenge is to break into Kelly's father's department store (which is actually more like a multi-level office building) and somehow get their hands on the night watchman's uniform. But that's OK. As Alison points out, he's rumored to be "a real stud hung like a mule or something." Too bad he's pronged to death before they get to find out for sure.

Kelly, Marcia and Alison are all locked in the store, Megan and three frat guys sneak inside in an attempt to scare them and the killer shows up to do them all in. There's death by axe to the head, arrow, slit throat and a garden variety stabbing. One girl confesses being raped by her violin teacher when she was 12 years old and then trades one traumatic sexual experience for another when the first guy she willingly gives herself to is shot dead with a harpoon gun immediately afterward. The melted-faced groundskeeper shows up, as does another surprise guest. After his assistant hits the library to do some research, Peter rushes to the Fairchild home to alert Frances and then to the mall in an effort to save Kelly.

The Initiation is yet another interchangeable, forgettable slasher flick from the early 80s. Production values, score and photography are all OK, and there's enough blood, death and nudity for one of these things, but the storyline is far too predictable and whatever twists it has to offer up are poorly telegraphed in advance. Even the attempt for a last-minute shock is pretty easy to figure out. The acting is all over-the-place; ranging from OK (Miles, Gulager, Read) to flat out terrible (most of the younger cast). Though clearly still in need of some experience before the cameras, star Zuniga is pretty and appealing enough. She seemed poised for stardom after snagging lead roles in the popular teen comedy The Sure Thing (1986) and the successful Star Wars spoof Spaceballs (1987) right after this, but the string of poor / mediocre films - Last Rites (1988), The Fly II (1989), Gross Anatomy (1989) - that followed doomed her to TV work thereafter. She's probably now best known for her role on the nighttime soap Melrose Place.

Crimson Cult, The (1968)

... aka: Black Horror: le messe nere
... aka: Crimson Altar, The
... aka: Curse of the Crimson Altar
... aka: Curse of the Crimson Cult
... aka: Reincarnation, The
... aka: Spirit of the Dead
... aka: Witch House, The

Directed by:
Vernon Sewell

Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Barbara Steele and Michael Gough all in one horror film? Pinch me, I'm dreaming. Directed by the same man who brought us the ho hum Ghost Ship (1952) and the atrocious THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR (1968), which star Peter Cushing claimed was his worst-ever horror film in interviews? I guess I'll keep my expectations low. Following the opening credits is a quote from an unnamed "Medical Journal" which tells us that the combination of hallucinogenic drugs and hypnosis may "induce the subject to perform actions he may not normally commit." This is immediately followed by a Satanic black mass set in a green-lit dungeon featuring a topless blonde with strategically placed hair getting whipped by a dominatrix wearing pasties, a woman holding a chicken, a man with a goat and a muscle man blacksmith prepping a red hot branding iron. Steele, looking extremely striking in green face paint and a feathered ram's horn headdress, pops in and announces herself as "Lavinia, Keeper of the Black Secret" in an echo voice. She instructs Peter Manning (Denys Peek) on what he needs to do, which is sign his soul away to Satan, stab the blonde sacrifice and then get branded to seal their pact.

After receiving an odd letter from Peter, his brother Robert (Mark Eden), who runs an antique shop in London, decides to head on down to Greymarshe to see if he can locate his missing sibling. He's just in time for "Witch's Night;" an annual celebration in the area that involves games, fireworks, a burning of a witch effigy and, of course, parties. While driving down an old country road he runs right into a panicked blonde in a pink mesh body stocking being chased by a car. That turns out to just be a "sophisticated game of hide and seek." On to Craxted Lodge he goes, where a wild shindig is well underway. Young folks guzzle down champagne, smoke weed and dance, and this happens to be the second 1968 British horror film I've seen in a week to contain body painting (the other being CORRUPTION), which must have been the in-thing in swingin' Brit culture at the time. Robert runs into the blonde again. She introduces herself as Eve (Virginia Wetherell) and she's the niece of the man Robert came there to see; J.D. Morley (Lee).

Despite numerous clues suggesting the contrary, J.D. claims to have never seen Robert's brother, but offers up a place for Robert to the next few days while he searches for him. John Marshe (Karloff), a professor, witchcraft expert and collector of instruments of torture, shows up in a wheelchair to tell our hero all about the witch and explains that there's always been a link between those who burnt Lavinia at the stake in 1652 and those who've mysteriously died in the area. While staying in Craxted, Robert keeps receiving warnings to get out from neurotic dim-wit butler Elder (a wasted Gough) and then starts having bizarre nightmares involving psychedelic / kaleidoscopic swirls, his brother calling out to him and Lavinia trying to force him to sign a book in blood before stabbing him. After one such dream, he even wakes with a real wound on his arm. Robert, with help from Eve, must piece together the clues before he ends up just like his dearly departed brother.

Things look very good thanks to talented cinematographer John Coquillon and all of the actors do what they can but there's only so much that can be done to try to overcome a poor screenplay and a certain overworked, predictable blandness this entire film possesses. Neither the plot nor the characters are adequately developed and the ending feels rushed in how it attempts (and fails) to tie up all the loose ends. Steele, who looks fantastic and is just perfect in these kind of roles, and Karloff, who is given most of the humorous lines, probably come off best amongst the principles, though they, Lee and Gough are strictly supporting players despite the billing order. While shooting this in January, 1968 under freezing conditions, supposedly poor Boris (who was 81 years old at the time) developed pneumonia and never quite recovered from it. That makes frigid outdoor scenes of the feeble actor - steam exiting his mouth after each line - more than just a little sad to sit through.

Curse of the Crimson Altar first hit U.S. theaters in 1970 under the title The Crimson Cult. For this initial American release, some of the kinkier moments (like the lady with the whip) and Wetherell's brief nude scenes were removed so it could secure a PG rating. All of those scenes have since been reinserted for the DVD version. Though the credits say it was based on a story by Jerry Sohl, it's actually partially based on H.P. Lovecraft's story "The Dreams in the Witch House." The cast also includes Rupert Davies in a brief role as a vicar, Rosemarie Reede as a secretary, Michael Warren as Basil, a mute, black-clad man in sunglasses who pushes Karloff's character around and Roger Avon as a skeptical police sergeant.

It was made for executive producer Tony Tenser's Tigon British Film Productions, who tried to compete with what rivals Amicus and Hammer were up to at the same time with such films as THE SORCERERS (1967) starring Karloff, Witchfinder General (1968) starring Vincent Price, THE BEAST IN THE CELLAR (1970), Blood on Satan's Claw (1971) with Linda Hayden, DOOMWATCH (1972) and THE CREEPING FLESH (1973) with Cushing and Lee.

Retribution (1987)

... aka: Diabólico terror absoluto (Diabolical Absolute Terror)
... aka: La reencarnación del mal (The Reincarnation of Evil)
... aka: Les forces du mal (The Forces of Evil)
... aka: Possessão Vingativa (Vengeful Possession)
... aka: Retribution: The Ultimate Nightmare

Directed by:
Guy Magar

On Halloween night while a busy block party is going on, depressed artist George Miller (Dennis Lipscomb) leaps from the top of a tall building and bounces off a car in front of a large crowd. He somehow manages to miraculously survive a fall that should have killed him and is rushed off to a hospital for a three-month-long journey back to recovery. There, he strikes up a friendship with resident psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Curtis (Leslie Wing) but is also haunted by a recurring, green-tinted nightmares featuring a disfigured face crying out in agony and someone being shot in both arms and both legs and then being covered with gasoline and set on fire. Despite those troubling and perplexing visions, George is given some sleeping pills, is released from the hospital and is back trying to live a normal life. He returns to the sleazy hotel he rents a room from, which is populated with various drunks, hookers and weirdos, and tries to get back to painting but soon starts having visions of blood and suffers from long black-out periods. By the time his little episodes are over, someone ends up dead.

George goes to a bar and meets drunken owner Sally (Pamela Dunlap), who thinks she recognizes him but can't quite place him. Once they get back to Sally's apartment, George's eyes glow green, his voice changes and he uses telepathic powers to destroy the woman's kitchen and make her gut herself with a knife. George's later recollections about the incident are vague, but he knows he was there and believes he killed the woman so he goes back to Dr. Curtis to confess. Believing he's suffering from a guilt complex and paranoid delusions, she simply sends him back home (!?) George causes noses to bleed, a bus to crash and then uses his powers to suck a meat processing plant employee (Mario Roccuzzo) into an animal carcass and then slice him up with a big table saw. The victims all have one thing in common: they were all behind the torture and death of gangster Vito Minelli (Mike Muscat). As it turns out, George and Vito share the same birthday and at the exact moment of George's attempted suicide, Vito was killed and was then somehow able to possess George's body and is now using him as an instrument for revenge. How this was made possible is never really explained.

Things go along pretty much as one would expect them to. George keeps having terrifying visions (including a mock Easter Island head in a "neon art gallery" spurting out gallons of blood), goes into his trances and kills off the others responsible for Vito's death. Dr. Curtis risks her career trying to help poor George and is ratted out by her useless lover (Jeff Pomerantz), who she's been confiding in, to the police. George strikes up an admittedly kinda sweet romance with Angel (Suzanne Snyder), the friendly, kooky New Wave-y hooker who lives in his building. Angel and her biker friend Dylan (executive producer Chris Caputo) take George to a reggae club to see Doctor Rasta (!!) (Danny D. Daniels), but only succeed in tearing up the place. Country music singer turned actor Hoyt Axton pops up in a small role (and is actually quite terrible) as an investigating police lieutenant.

Retribution is a roller coaster of an unfocused film with highs and lows and lots of stuff in between. The movie suffers a lot from a poorly-developed and often meandering script and wildly uneven acting. There are long, tedious stretches where nothing much happens and numerous scenes thrown in that have little bearing on the actual plot and should have wound up on the cutting room floor (one scene involving a cab driver seems to be here simply so the director could give himself an extended cameo). Thankfully, this does manage to come to life during some nicely-directed, shot and staged supernatural sequences. There are some superb visuals sprinkled throughout and cinematographer Gary Thieltges deserves a special shout out for making this look as nice as it does. Even better, his good work has been restored to its former vivid glory by a 2012 Code Red DVD release; a notable upgrade from murky previous bootlegs. There's some impressive camerawork (particularly during the opening sequence), good special effects (Kevin Yagher did the makeups) and it's extremely colorful in that enjoyably gaudy, neon-drenched 80s kind of way. Supporting characters, including Susan Peretz as a hotel owner who likes to dress up her dog in a wig and sunglasses, add a mildly eccentric touch a la Paul Bartel's PRIVATE PARTS (1972) or Frank Henenlotter's BASKET CASE (1982). The score is from frequent John Carpenter collaborator Alan Howarth and the cast also includes George Murdock and Harry Caesar.

Three of the death scenes had to be slightly trimmed in order for this to get an R-rating, which included shots of guts spilling from a stomach, a hand being cut off with a blowtorch and a head getting squashed (which are included as extras on Code Red's release). This was the feature debut for Egyptian-born TV director Magar, who'd also go on to make Stepfather III: Father's Day (1992) and Children of the Corn: Revelations (2001). He apparently hasn't done any film or TV work in a decade and now teaches some kind of filmmaking seminar and hawks an instructional DVD.

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