Saturday, October 31, 2020

Trick or Treats (1982)

... aka: Blodig Halloween (Bloody Halloween)
... aka: Decapitator
... aka: Fatal noche de brujas (Fatal Halloween)
... aka: Terror na Noite (Terror in the Night)

Directed by:
Gary Graver

For strictly mainstream viewers, Gary Graver will probably be best remembered for his work on various Orson Welles projects, especially the ill-fated, all star cast The Other Side of the Wind, which was shot from 1970 to 1976 in seven different countries, partially financed by a relative of the last Shah of Iran, spent years being edited, fell into numerous legal problems and wasn't completed and actually released until 2018; over 10 years after Graver, and over 30 years after Welles, had passed on! For the rest of us horror, exploitation and cult film fanatics, Graver is a man who doesn't really need much of an introduction. His name is always popping on various films made from the 1960s all the way up to the mid 2000s. He was a man who wore many different hats: director, writer, editor, actor and, most especially, cinematographer.

Graver worked alongside many of the big names in U.S. exploitation drive-in films of the 70s like Roger Corman, Al Adamson and Harry Novak, later worked with the biggest names in U.S. direct-to-video films of the 80s and 90s like Fred Olen Ray, Charles Band and Jim Wynorski, directed some of his own exploitation films, shot a number of commercials, documentaries and music videos and periodically got mainstream work like heartwarming made-for-TV movies. What's really amazing is that in between his R-rated exploitation work and gigs working for Disney and NBC and doing uncredited second unit work for the likes of Steven Spielberg and John Cassavetes (among others) he was pulling double duty as a director of hardcore porn films using the alias "Robert McCallum." Graver started making them in the mid 1970s and continued on for another 20 years. Of his 140+ directorial credits, most are X rated.

I really could go on for hours about Graver's impressive and seemingly endless Z movie credentials but we'll just say that the man certainly should have known how to throw together a good exploitation movie by 1982. Should being the operative word here. Unfortunately, this painfully unfunny horror-comedy is certainly not it. In the pantheon of genre films set on All Hallows Eve, this would be the Halloween candy equivalent of those peanut butter taffy chews that come in orange and black wrappers that always lurked in the bottom of your trick-or-treat bag along with candy corn and boxes of raisins. Even as sugar junkie kids, my siblings and I were never desperate enough to actually eat those things. Straight into the trash they went!

Clearly made for the sole purpose of cashing in on the slasher movie boom of the early 1980s using Carpenter's Halloween as the basis, this is actually mostly a trick on the viewer as there's very little actual horror content here, no suspense, no gore, no style and a massive amount of fake scares, filler and flagrantly unfunny "comedy" bits. However, the meagerly budgeted movie (made for just 55 thousand dollars and released to theaters just two days before Halloween) was pretty much money in the bank... just not for Graver. Ironically enough, he ended up being tricked himself by a shady distributor who kept all of the profits!

Here's what the director had to say about the film, why it was made and how he got stiffed in an interview in Penny Blood magazine (#11)...

Millionaire industrialist Malcolm O'Keefe (Peter Jason), face buried in the Wall Street Journal, and his wife Joan (Carrie Snodgress), are having breakfast on the back patio when the doorbell rings. Next thing Malcolm knows, two orderlies are going after him with a straight jacket. After a struggle in and out of the swimming pool, they finally get it on him and haul him off to Western State Hospital. "Several years later" struggling part time actress Linda (Jacqueline Giroux) is called by her employment agency to take a babysitting job and in doing so has to pass up a chance to see her small time actor boyfriend Bret (Steve Railsback) perform a part in a Shakespeare play. Linda shows up at the Adams residence where Joan and her new husband Richard (David Carradine), who's something of a pervert, are planning on going to a Las Vegas Halloween party for the night. She's to watch over their ten-year-old son Christopher, played by Chris Graver, the director's real-life son. After the parents leave, Linda's in for a rather unpleasant night... and she's not the only one.

The chubby Christopher is a Houdini-obsessed amateur magician and prankster who spends most of the evening trying to horrify his babysitter using his arsenal of tricks. He pretends to kill himself with a guillotine, pretends to slash his own throat, pretends to drown himself, pretends to chop off his finger, shocks her with a joy buzzer, sets off firecrackers, scares her with a succession of monster masks, throws mice and cats on her and more. He's also probably the most insufferable little shit in a holiday horror until Luke in Better Watch Out (2016). What's especially annoying is that Linda falls for his lame gags over and over and over again.

Cut in between all of the pranks are equally awful scenes at the asylum where Malcolm, who was actually sane when first falsely committed but is now pretty crazy, plots to escape from the loony bin to get revenge. He gets his buddy Bert (Jean L. Clark) to distract a nurse while he stuffs rags in her mouth. He then steals her outfit and wig, punches out a night watchman and drives off in the nurse's car. He keeps making pit stops on his drive back to the house to call his former home with threatening messages ("I'm coming home to take care of you, darling!"), loses his car and forces a wino (Paul Bartel) to trade clothes with him at knife point. He doesn't even arrive home until an hour into the movie. And no one even dies until the last 20 minutes. That maybe would have been OK if the earlier scenes were any good. They're not!

With the door constantly being knocked on by trick-or-treaters, the phone constantly ringing, the sociopathic little abortion constantly running around, sticking out his tongue and spouting awful one-liners and the endless barrage of false scares, this is simply irritating to sit through. Even when it finally remembers to be a horror movie during the last 20 or so minutes with a long chase scene and a couple of tame kills (which mostly occur off-screen), it doesn't improve much.

The director's decision to cast his own son was, as is usually the case, a mistake. Yes, we know you think your child is cute and charming and entertaining, and you want to show the world how adorable and talented you think they are. Problem is, the only reason you think that is because it's your kid and no one else is going to be as enamored with them as you are especially when they can't act. So if you're planning on casting a kid and giving them an irritating lead role, the least you can do is hire a child actor with some experience so at least they don't come off so awkward.

What makes this seem like an even bigger waste is that the rest of the cast is actually pretty good, or at least they can be good in other movies. Snodgress, Railsback (who is talking on the telephone during all of his scenes), Bartel, Jason and Carradine are all actors who've had their great moments in film and TV but this is a career low point for nearly all of them. Graver's future wife Jillian Kesner has a supporting role playing Linda's film editor friend. During one bizarre scene, she and another female coworker (Nike Zachmanoglou) bitch about having to cut together cheap horror movies while we get to see footage from one of those movies that very poorly attempts to parody them.

Giroux amusingly started out in the religious film The Cross and the Switchblade (1970) starring Pat Boone but was appearing in all manner of sleazy exploitation films just a few years after that, often using aliases like Robyn Whitting or Valdesta. Among her more notable roles was playing a man-hating lesbian murderess in the fun WIP film Sweet Sugar (1972) and the lead prisoner Rosette in the classic ILSA, SHE WOLF OF THE SS (1975), though she opted not to be credited there. She also starred in the Bigfoot nudie movie The Beauties and the Beast (1973), which probably sucks but I'm still kind of intrigued by it and want to see it, and even appeared in some hardcore porn films like Graver's engaging comedy Garage Girls (1980), though she merely did still photography and acted in those and never participated in any of the sex scenes.

Giroux, who was married to Railsback, was already in her mid 30s at the time of filming and became the subject of criticism by people complaining that she was too old to play an imperiled babysitter. Personally, I never got why this was ever an issue. Who says a babysitter has to be a teenager? Besides, it's made clear that she works for a nanny agency and women of all ages do that. I thought she was actually pretty likable all things considered. There's just nothing she can really do about the terrible script and pacing, the unsure tone, the generic library music, the unimaginative direction and the numerous other issues this film has.

The cast also includes Catherine E. Coulson (The Log Lady from Twin Peaks) and X-rated actress Tara Aire as nurses, former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Tim Rossovich and former Houston Oilers quarterback Dan Pastorini as orderlies and John Blyth Barrymore in the horror parody. Graver, who also wrote, produced, edited and shot it, also appears in a brief cameo as a diner worker. Welles is given a credit as "magical advisor" even though he merely lent them some props to use.

This was first distributed on VHS by Vestron and became a fixture on late night TV afterward. In 2013, Code Red released this on DVD along with a slew of extras, including a commentary track with Giroux, Jason and the young star.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Death Run (1987)

... aka: Fuga da Morte (Escape from Death)
... aka: I Padroni della Terra (The Masters of the Earth)
... aka: Mutant City

Directed by:
Michael J. Murphy

It's twenty-five years after a nuclear war has devastated the entire Earth. Dr. Eileen Saunders (Kay Lowrey, who may be the same actress billed as Catherine Rowlands on other Murphy films), a scientist formerly of the National Research Centre, has somehow managed to keep herself alive in an underground bunker all that time. Her teenage son Paul (Rob Bartlett), along with his girlfriend Jenny (Wendy Parsons), were put into cryogenic deep freeze / a state of suspended animation prior to the war and haven't aged in the decades that have passed. Dr. Saunders successfully revives them, gives them backpacks filled with food and supplies and then sends them out into the uncertain world, where she hopes they'll become the Adam and Eve of a new and better civilization to come. Having had enough of this life, Dr. Saunders then kills herself shortly after they leave. She has no clue what kind of world she's just sent them out into.

After camping out for the night, Paul and Jenny are attacked by a gang of dirty, motorcycle-riding punks the very next morning. They examine Paul's junk, attempt to rape Jenny, steal their food and fight over a can of Coke. Hell, I know Coke contains a lot of sugar, but I'm not sure it'd taste quite as good after having sat around for two-and-a-half decades. The two are then kidnapped and taken to the punk's compound (called "Junk City"), which is basically just a very large scrapyard with a few buildings. In the surrounding "wastelands," green-and-red lumpy cannibal zombie-like mutants lurk in the woods and are a constant threat. Some have been captured and are kept caged in the compound. Others are just casually shot with arrows, run over with cars, etc. as need be.

Most of the punks worship a pompous and evil man called Messiah (Patrick Olliver), who holds rule over Junk City, feeds any detractors to the mutants and holds "runs," which involve a prisoner being handcuffed to an electrified wire and having to overcome various deadly obstacles / booby traps. Even though he usually gets it on with his male assistant Sly (Andy Mathews), Messiah's willing to make an exception for the "clean" Jenny, who's been offered up to him by the punks. He makes her kiss his withered arm, rapes and beats her up, licks her eyeball (?!) and plans on continuing to do so until (I guess?) he uses her up. Meanwhile, Paul is thrown into a cell where he's slated to take part in a "run" along with a hunky guy named Hero (Eddie Kirby), one of the few people to have survived a previous run.

Paul and Hero receive help from blonde hottie Barbara (Debbi Stevens), who brings them food, sneaks them in weapons and plots to break them out. Her motivation is seeing the overthrow of the sadistic Messiah. When a punk tries to rape her ("I've only got two fuckin' diseases. You don't know what you're missin!"), she roundhouse kicks him in the head. She then successfully helps them escape. They get Jenny, who's seriously injured after being shot with an arrow, and drive away. They then must head through the dangerous wastelands on foot while avoiding the mutants, cannibals (masquerading as a rebel camp) and Messiah's "cretinous worm" henchman (Steven Longhurst) and army of punks.

What we've got here is a mixed bag of stuff ranging from the pretty-good-on-a-budget to absolutely terrible that all comes out at the end being reasonably entertaining. The bad? It's obviously cheap, poorly shot, horribly edited and features some of the most laughably bad fight choreography you'll ever see. The "death run" of the title, which consists of little more than someone running down a hill on a clothesline, is also pretty lame once we finally get to it. On the plus side, the punk aesthetic / clothing / hair are all great, it's fast-moving and they've wisely chosen the shooting locations to give this an effectively grimy futuristic / apocalyptic feel. Though the make-ups are highly variable, this thing is also loaded with cheap gore: decapitations, slashings, impalements, a mouth stabbing, flesh eating, someone drowned in cannibal stew while someone else pukes all over their back (!) and much more.

As noted in previous reviews, the director always seems to squeeze in a montage of sweaty shirtless men working out, lifting weights, etc. I thought this film would be an exception because, ya know, it's set on a post apocalyptic planet where the world has basically gone to shit and everyone is struggling for basic survival and all the gyms have closed down, yet he somehow manages to include it here, too, with a montage of two shirtless men working out / exercising in a field (using logs instead of weights) as preparation for "the run." I should have figured!

Acting ranges from awful to OK. Bartlett is acceptable as the male lead, while Olliver (who was much more subdued in Murphy's BLOODSTREAM) goes way over-the-top and campy as the main bad guy, which was pretty much the best way to go given his character. Best of all is Stevens. Considering she has competent acting chops plus is very attractive, she deserved to have much more of a career. However, we at least get to see more of her in other films from the same director, so there's at least that.

This was the best distributed of all of the directors 25+ films on the home video market. There were VHS releases in the UK, Germany (using the title Mutant City and falsely claiming it's an American production), Brazil, Italy, Spain and elsewhere. In 2020, the company Frolic Pictures released it on DVD paired with The Meateater (1979), though this appears to be merely a VHS-quality transfer.

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