Saturday, August 29, 2020

Nightmare Sisters (1988)

... aka: Ölüm Melekleri (Angels of Death)
... aka: Sorority Sisters
... aka: Sorority Succubus Sisters

Directed by:
Dave (David) DeCoteau

Because he had so much fun making his previous horror-comedy, SORORITY BABES IN THE SLIMEBALL BOWL-O-RAMA (1988), and had leftover 35mm short ends from that shoot, DeCoteau decided to make a companion film starring the same three main actresses. Only this time the budget was significantly lower and the shooting schedule was significantly shorter (just 4 days), resulting in lots of long, static camera setups, minimal plot, minimal special effects and most of the action having to be shot in a small house. Thankfully none of that really diminishes the fun factor here thanks almost entirely to its three entertaining stars: Linnea Quigley, Michelle Bauer (billed here as "Michelle McClellan") and Brinke Stevens. These three actresses would reign as the Top 3 "Scream Queens" of direct-to-video horror in the 80s well into the 90s until the term "Scream Queen" was co-opted by every low budget horror actress and then used by the press to describe more mainstream actresses like Jennifer Love Hewitt who appeared in just one or two high profile horror films, and basically lost all of its meaning. Still, Quigley, Bauer and Stevens managed to carve out a special place in genre history before that happened.

On a related / interesting note, nowadays there are mixed feelings about usage of "Scream Queen" as a descriptor. Some view it is limiting, reductive, insulting, antiquated and / or even a bit misogynistic and sexist. This is all highlighted in an article penned by frequent horror actress Barbara Crampton a few years back called Don't Call Me a Scream Queen. After reading Crampton's article and the various views from industry people on this subject, I decided I'll still be using the term here. To me, this label only applies to a small number of actresses anyway, and only those who have earned such a title due to a sizable genre filmography. I use it with affection and it certainly doesn't mean that I think these actresses are only capable of screaming and playing victims. I know better. Most genre fans also know better. I just don't really see the point in having to type out "Actress Who Does a Lot of Horror Films But Can Also Do Other Genres!" each time I address a prolific female genre presence.

And none of that changes the fact that Quigley, Bauer and Stevens really ARE Scream Queens by the very definition of what a Scream Queen was back in the direct-to-video era. Combined, they've starred in hundreds of genre films over the years. During the 80s and 90s, they attended genre conventions as Scream Queens, did talk shows as Scream Queens, appeared in Scream Queens Illustrated and other genre magazines countless times and actively promoted themselves everywhere as Scream Queens. All three proudly wore that label then and still wear it today. No need to retroactively change course and refer to them as something else at this point in time. However, out of respect for other actresses like Crampton, who doesn't like that term applied to herself, I'll make sure to refrain from calling her that in the future. During the time frame we cover here, she wouldn't really qualify for it, anyway. Now back to the movie...

During the overlong opening sequence, wealthy Southern housewife Amanda Detweiler (Sandy Brooke) shows up at phony psychic Omar's ("Dukey Flyswatter" / Michael D. Sonye) to get to the bottom of why her husband vanished. Instead, demon hands emerge from his crystal ball and rip his head off. Some time later, we're on a college campus where nerdy college girl / hoarder Marci Feinberg (Brinke) has just returned to her sorority house from a flea market with a car full of junk, er I mean, antiques. She joins fellow sisters Melody Hoffmeier (Linnea), a buck-toothed wanna-be singer, and Mickey (Michelle), a compulsive over-eater dubbed "Thunder Thighs Johnson" by the men on campus for obvious reasons, on the couch to sort through things. Among Marci's acquisitions are pickle salt and pepper shakers, a coconut monkey head and a crystal ball... the late Omar's crystal ball to be exact.

Seeing how the rest of their sisters are away for the entire weekend, the girls decide to do something special: Throw a party. Only problem is, they're all unpopular and deemed undesirable by the guys on campus. However, Melody did go on an awkward date with shy fellow nerd Kevin (Richard Gabai) a month earlier. She calls him up, invites him to the party and insists he bring along a couple of his friends; Freddy (Marcus Vaughter) and Duane (William Dristas). Unfortunately for the guys, their frat brother superiors Phil (Timothy Kauffman), J.J. (Matthew Phelps) and Bud (C.J. Cox) find out and "ground" them; forbidding them to their leave their room for the weekend in an attempt to crash the party themselves. Kevin, Freddy and Duane sneak out of the window and go anyway.

At the party, Melody warbles "Row Row Row Your Boat" at the piano, Marci bores Duane to sleep with her photo album and Mickey pigs out on chips listening to Freddy's sad sack life story. Things are livened up a bit with a game of Twister in the backyard and livened up even more with a séance in the kitchen. There, they summon up Omar who tricks the girls into touching his crystal ball. They're shocked by lasers and transformed into topless demonic seductresses (a cave girl, a rocker chick and a sweet and innocent lollipop-sucking little girl [!]) who reduce victims to smoke via oral sex. Phil and frat bros spy on them, break in and attempt to cock block the action, paying for it with their lives. Eventually an exorcist, Lanchester Perrin ("Jeffrey Culver" / James R. Sweeney), is called in to try to save the ladies.

Considering the ultra low budget and insanely short filming schedule, this is smoother and less clunky than one might imagine. It's also enjoyably upbeat and lighthearted. Still, the plot and overall production is minimal, the camerawork isn't good, the jokes and one-liners in Kenneth J. Hall's script run the gamut from terrible to very funny and the acting from the male cast members is highly variable. The three leading ladies, however, are all excellent and manage to make the movie all by themselves. This is a perfect demonstration of why they became as popular as they did back then. In fact, it's a much better showcase for all three than its companion film Sorority Babes, which centered more around Quigley's biker chick character. Here the playing field is evened and all three are given a chance to shine.

While Quigley, Bauer and Stevens' looks and willingness to do nudity did play a part in their popularity, it's always overstated and doesn't really explain why these three in particular were the ones who became the stars out of the literally thousands of women who did nude scenes in 80s horror flicks. It obviously wasn't just the nudity itself that separated them from the pack, but that nudity included in a package that also contained talent, self-awareness, a sense of humor and on-screen charisma. The opening half gives them the opportunity to character act and play against type, and they're likable, funny and utterly charming as geeks (plus effortlessly glide through extremely long unbroken takes), while the second half has them in their expected seductive vixen personas and they're equally good there. Of course there's also an abundance of nudity, including one of the longest bathtub scenes in film history, but that's what drove the market back in the day. I remember hearing one of them, I believe Stevens, refer to nudity as an "occupational hazard" in an interview.

All three of the stars did their own makeup and costumes plus get to deliver some amusing inside jokes poking fun at themselves, like Quigley and Bauer sneaking in references to their roles in THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985) and The Tomb (1986) and Stevens discussing marine biology (her chosen field prior to acting). The final scene is filled with obvious nods to The Exorcist while a poster for DeCoteau's earlier film CREEPOZOIDS (1987) is seen on a wall. The soundtrack includes songs (including the memorable "Sorority Sister Succubus" theme song) by Sonye's band Haunted Garage, as well as "Santa Monica Blvd. Boy" by Linnea's band The Skirts, which she also performs in the film and is also great.

Nightmare Sisters received a limited theatrical and then VHS release from TransWorld Entertainment in 1988. It was first issued on DVD by Retromedia in 2003 and then was bundled on several Scream Queen sets distributed by Rapid Heart Entertainment and 88 Films. The Blu-ray debut came in 2016 courtesy of Vinegar Syndrome. In the early 90s, the actresses filmed brand new scenes to replace all of their nude ones so this could play on the USA Network's Up All Night program. These new bits include the girls in lingerie in the kitchen, bouncing on the bed with balloons and Linnea re-filming her entire musical number. This rare alternate TV cut is included on Vinegar Syndrome's release.

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