Monday, December 31, 2007

Horror Slasher Films Without a "Last Girl"

One of the "rules" of 1980s slasher films is that every film ends with a "last girl," a tradition begun by Jamie Lee Curtis in John Carpenter's Halloween (1978). Yet a number of films break this rule.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Consider Pranks (aka, The Dorm That Dripped Blood). Very low budget. Four college kids (count 'em, just four!), at an deserted college campus. Two guys, two gals. The campus is deserted because the kids are closing it up for the winter break.

Okay, there's a fifth student, Daphne Zuniga (the Last Girl in The Initiation), but Zuniga dies early in this film (nicely run over by a car), along with her parents. Then two other college kids (and the red herring suspect) are killed over the next hour.

That leaves the Last Girl with another kid who turns out to be the psycho killer. There was no reason to suspect him, it's all arbitrary, but that's common and appropriate for horror films, albeit not for mysteries. Mysteries require clues so the audience may guess the killer; horror is about fear, not a puzzle, and a threat is all the more fearsome if its identity is unknowable.

Then this psycho kills the Last Girl. He also successfully fools the cops, so he gets off. We know he'll be out there killing again.

Then there's Hide and Go Shriek. Eight high school kids celebrate their graduation by hiding out in a furniture store for sex and hijinks. They can do this because one of their dads owns the store, Fine Furniture. (This is similar to the kids hiding out in the mall in The Initiation, because, you guessed it, Daphne Zuniga's dad owns the mall.)

The killer in Hide and Go Shriek turns out to be a cross-dressing gay. Probably a less likely villain in today's more PC climate, but standard for the time. What's remarkable about Hide and Go Shriek is that four of the eight students (two guys and two girls) survive!

That's right. Eight potential victims, and fully half of them survive. Yes, there are some incidental victims, but four survivors does not make for a very generous body count. Still, Hide and Go Shriek is entertaining, in that "1980s low budget slasher" sort of way.

And there's also Intruder, a very nice film about grocery clerks closing up a store that's about to be sold and torn down. Not only does the killer survive, but so do two of the kids -- the potential Last Girl (Elizabeth Cox) and her ex-boyfriend -- who are then falsely arrested for the murders. As in Pranks, the cops are fooled.

Again, this is appropriate for horror, if not for mysteries. The latter genre seeks order, while the former creates fear by disrupting that order. If the cops are inept, the world becomes a more fearsome place.

Intruder features Renée Estevez, who also appears in Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers. Estevez is sister to Emilio Estevez and Martin Sheen, daughter of Martin Sheen.

All the the above films are recommended for hardcore horror fans. By "hardcore," I mean "forgiving." Only a forgiving, hardcore fan would enjoy some of the above ultra-low budget fare, Pranks being the lowest budgeted.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

How Extras Were Exploited on Embrace of the Vampire

Let me demonstrate how extras are sometimes exploited in the film industry. Let me tell you of my day as an extra on Embrace of the Vampire.

Embrace of the Vampire is a soft-core porn ripoff of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Both films feature a vampire pursuing the reincarnation of his centuries-old love. Both films aspire to a sort of "vampire romance." At the end of Embrace of the Vampire, Martin Kemp's tearful bloodthirsty angst, Alyssa Milano's tearful rediscovery of her love, the "tragic" star-crossed finale, and the Christian iconography, all mirror Bram Stoker's Dracula. One senses that director Goursaud was trying to rise above her porn material.

But Embrace of the Vampire is no poor woman's Bram Stoker's Dracula. Milano is no Winona Ryder and Kemp is no Gary Oldman. For that matter, none of the other talent on this film compare to their counterparts. And the budget just wasn't there. The strength of low-budget horror is a gritty authenticity, which this film tries to hide rather than utilize.

How low was the budget?

I worked one day as an extra on Embrace of the Vampire. It was in 1993 or '94. Don't look for me. I ended up on the cutting room floor, and extras are rarely mentioned in credits. But let me tell you an "inside story" on the making of this film.

We were shooting in a nightclub on the Sunset Strip. The extras were divided into three camps: union, nonunion, and Modesto extras. Union extras earn the most, especially once overtime kicks in, so they were wrapped after eight hours. (They were only hired in the first place to fill a union quota.) This was during my nonunion days (I'm in SAG now), so I put in a full 14 hours, after which we were paid in cash and wrapped. The Modesto extras were still working when we left.

Now what, you may ask, is a Modesto extra? I also wondered, and so I asked one. I was told that they were from an acting class in Modesto, California. They had been bussed in to work on the film as part of a "class assignment." In other words, they were paying to come to work.

There's not a whole lot to learn about being an extra. It's neither glamorous nor difficult. And nonunion extra jobs for twentysomethings are very easy to come by. The lampposts in Los Angeles are covered with flyers seeking cattle ... ehr, extras. I did it for the cash, and because if you do it often enough, you increase your chances of getting into the union. Which I did, after some 13 grueling months.

Never pay for the "chance" to be an extra, not in Los Angeles. I made the mistake of volunteering (i.e., working for free) to be an extra a few times when I first started out, but I soon wised up. I certainly never paid.

My guess is that the producers of Embrace of the Vampire paid the acting teacher to bus down some cattle, paying far less than even nonunion extras cost. I know this teacher was getting paid by the students, and that the students were not getting paid to be on the film. So the teacher was double-dipping, getting paid by both the film and the students.

The film didn't care; they were getting cattle at below market rates. And the students didn't care; they were getting ripped off, but they didn't know it.

When I advised one "Modesto extra" that he was getting a raw deal, he grew indignant, saying, "Well, that's easy for you to say, but we don't have the same opportunities to be an extra in Modesto that you have in Los Angeles."

I suppose I can understand his feelings. I loved working on Bram Stoker's Dracula. But there you had Francis Ford Coppola and Winona Ryder. And I saw Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins. And we worked on the Universal and Sony studios. And still we got paid.

By comparison, Embrace of the Vampire was a low-budget job, shot in a dingy nightclub. Nothing wrong with that, but you shouldn't do it for free. You certainly shouldn't pay for the chance to sit in a dingy nightclub with B-list "stars."

In Los Angeles, actors sometimes pay for the chance to appear in plays, in what are called "showcase" productions. While (a scant few) tickets are sold, showcase productions are mostly done for the benefit of managers, agents, and casting directors, all of whom receive free invites. Showcase productions are theater's answer to vanity publishing.

Okay, I can understand investing in your own play, along with the other actors, in order to perform a speaking role before casting people. But paying to be an extra? Sure, the Modesto extra claimed he was getting an "education." And the teacher did lecture to the Modesto extras between takes (so he couldn't be accused of fraud?). But even so, never pay to be an extra.

If paying to be an actor is like paying to be published, then paying to be an extra is like paying to run the copier at a publishing house, so as to learn about the industry. Copiers are run by minimum wage temps or by unpaid interns. It takes one poor, dumb bastard to actually pay for that sort of "learning experience."

Another inside story regarding Embrace of the Vampire: Someone stole a silver wolf pin belonging to a crew member. She was near tears because it had sentimental value. Never leave anything of value lying around on a set.

And some trivia: John Stanley says this film was "originally conceived as The Nosferatu Diaries," but on the set, we were told the working title was The Collector.

Oh yes, about my scene. We were in a smoky room. I was supposed to cross with a woman on my arm. But in that scene, two people (Milano and Kemp, I suppose), were making out. I and the lady on my arm were watching. Only after the scene ended did she and I notice the A.D. frantically signaling us to cross.

So we'd missed our cues. But it was okay, because many of us had missed our cues. The extras, the crew, we'd all been gawking at the actors' hot, steamy makeout. Tense laughter followed after the scene ended and we all realized how we'd all been gawking.

That was the first take. No missed cues after that.

Embrace of the Vampire was no Bram Stoker's Dracula, but I enjoyed it, though I was glad when my 14-hour day was done. I'd spent much of it on the club's second floor, hanging out with the other extras, talking Monty Python and stuff. Someone played a piano. We were served a good meal of Domino's pizza. (One woman complained that Domino's was "anti-choice" on abortion.) I didn't lose any jewelry. And I was paid in cash at the end of the day.