Saturday, July 18, 2015

Dwelling, The (1993)

Directed by:
Jeffrey Lynn Ward

Aspiring journalist Andy Walker (Donny Valenti) loads up his beat-up old car and travels from the tiny desert town of Spencerville to L.A. The plan is to move into a new place, get a job and then start college but things don't as planned for the naive farm boy. When he arrives at the rooming house he's made arrangements to live in wearing a red-stained shirt (“I had a little accident with my mom's cherry pie.”), he's informed by the owner that his room has been reassigned. He then scrambles to find another and sees an ad for a suspiciously cheap one bedroom apartment for just 375 a month. Andy goes there and meets the owner, Mr. Crasmere, who's a complete asshole. Now let me stop here for just a second to say, “Holy miscasting, Batman!” Mr. Crasmere is played by Burt Ward who, of course, will forever be best known as Robin from the 60s cult TV series Batman. Seeing the short, pudgy, boyish-voiced Ward (who was never much of an actor to begin with) trying to portray a tough, beer-swilling jerk in a wife-beater and screaming half of his dialogue is just a little too much to handle. Considering the director's last name is also Ward I can only venture a guess and assume he is in some way related to the former Boy Wonder. So anyway, Crasmere tells Andy to hit the road and come back the next day, forcing him to spend the night in his car where he ends up in the middle of a gang fight.

We next meet hot-bodied blonde Donna ("Rachel Deane" / Bikini Carwash Company's Sara Suzanne Brown), who climbs out of bed, stretches, sniffs a rose and goes over to her mirror to look at a “Guest Pass” for a new Hollywood hot spot, all the while buck naked. She then crimps her hair, puts on a pink spandex outfit and goes to a punk bar called Ram's Head where she's chloroformed, kidnapped and taken back to some red-lit Satanic den. There, she's stripped and goes through an initiation that involves blood being painted on her breasts with a chicken's foot (!) The next day, Andy goes back to the apartment, fills out an application and gets a room. Mr. Crasmere lays down the ground rules and makes special mention that his other tenants need the utmost privacy. In other words, he recommends Andy just mind his own business. While moving in, he meets his friendly next-door neighbor, waitress / aspiring actress Pam (Michelle Bauer), who greets him in a thong bikini because she's on her way to a beach party movie set. Andy finds himself immediately attracted to Pam but she's already is in a rocky relationship with a macho jerk named David (Bruce Carson). Andy instead begins listening to their conversations and arguments (plus them having sex) through the walls.

After putting down way more money than he originally planned on his new place, books, school, etc., Andy finds himself nearly broke. He can't afford the deposit on a new phone and his wallet is stolen, so he doesn't even have a driver's license to get a new job, nor can he afford to go get a new one. To make matters worse, something strange is going on in the supposedly vacant apartment right above his. A cat is found mutilated outside and Andy hears footsteps and chanting into the wee hours that keep waking him up. Mr. Crasmere insists nothing is going on and no one has lived in the apartment for 9 months. After Andy punches out David over a misunderstanding, Crasmere decides to evict both him and Pam and gives them a few days to vacate. Feeling defeated, like a fish out of water in the big city and out of options, Andy decides to pack it up and head back home. But curiosity ends up getting the better of him and he unwisely decides to check out the upstairs apartment first...

It goes without saying that there's a Satanic cult at work in the "empty" rental unit and they keep busy hypnotizing new recruits and offering up blood sacrifices, with their ultimate goal being to open the gateway to hell so Satan can come to Earth. Ward not only manages the apartment block but is also the leader with an upside-down cross painted on his forehead. Andy gets there just in time to hide in the closet and watch Pam (who they've just kidnapped) go through the initiation ceremony. However, they have special plans in store for her. She has her throat cut and then is possessed by the “Princess of Darkness” to be Satan's new bride. From then on, a pale-faced Bauer gets to run around in demon contacts, fangs and lingerie causing all kinds of mischief and spouting ridiculous one-liners in a deep male voice.

This is pretty typical ultra-low-budget product of its time, but appears to have been shot on film and not video like some sources state. The sets definitely have a porn film sparseness to them and I wouldn't be one bit surprised to learn the filmmakers just rented out a few hotel rooms for a week to film most of this in. At least a bit of care was put into some of the lighting and art direction. The upstairs apartment where the Satanists conduct their ceremonies is lit up red, blue and purple and decked out with candles, skulls, pentagrams and all of the other expected things. There's also apparently a fog machine working in overdrive. They do a little bit better dressing up another Satanic den for the big finale, which looks like it was filmed in some large warehouse. There's some mild gore (like a guy ripping his face off), a few visual effects and T&A provided by four different women, including future soft-core actress Landon Hall.

The acting is pretty bad from everyone except for Bauer, who gets to play a nice girl in the first half before demonstrating why she was one of the best 80s/90s Scream Queens in the second. Obviously having a blast playing a deliciously evil demon-possessed character, Michelle gets to bite off a guy's dick during a nightmare sequence, bash a head against a wall, beat someone up with a tennis racket, blow up a car, set a few cultists on fire simply because she's bored and even channel Jack Torrance in a busting-through-the-bathroom-door scene obviously paying homage to The Shining. Bauer, of course, has a few nude scenes here, but she also has a lot of screen time and dialogue and this is one of her better roles even if the movie itself isn't so hot.

Perhaps the least typical thing going on here is the amount of attempted characterization. This spends almost a full hour focusing on Andy as he tries to adjust to the culture shock of big city life before he even gets involved in all of the Satanic stuff. In genre films, directors are often so intent on keeping things busy they have no option but to force us to suspend our disbelief to absurd levels to accept brainless behavior as characters needlessly endure one horrific thing after another. This one actually deals with its horror content a bit more plausibly by making a few odd things happen here and there but not things so horrific they should have the protagonist packing their bags or running to the cops long before they actually do. That said, this approach will no doubt bore some viewers. This also suffers from tonal problems; playing it seriously for a good hour before resorting to camp and cheap laughs toward the end, plus throws in a dumb, unnecessary subplot involving the kidnapped blonde, who's hypnotized and then hits Hollywood Boulevard with a switchblade, trying to force her tricks to “give obedience to the dark lord... or die!”

First conceived way back in 1989, this wasn't ready for release until 1993. By that point in time, video stores were already packed to capacity and there was little demand for low-budget shelf-filler titles such as this so it had to wait until 1996 for a very-limited video release. That happened through Dead Alive Productions, a company probably best known for releasing the Faces of Death knock-off series Traces of Death. Along with a bunch of forgettable no-budget SOV crap, Dead Alive also distributed a few more interesting titles like the notorious Men Behind the Sun (1988), Peter Jackson's perverted puppet satire Meet the Feebles (1989) and the surprisingly decent biopic The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer (1993).

Since this has never been on DVD and only the 1996 video exists, I had no choice but to watch the old VHS version, which had an extremely soft and often blurry picture. The original poster lists Dave Campbell and the director as being two of the male stars but neither is listed anywhere on the cast list. At some point in the early 90s, director Ward also started shooting something called Black Reign starring Bauer, but it was never finished. In 2007 he announced that Bauer filmed brand new scenes to complete the film so it could be released. That has yet to happen.

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