Thursday, January 31, 2008

No "Last Girl" in House of Death

I had a stack of free DVDs before me. I get them because I'm eligible to vote for the SAG Awards. I began watching 3:10 to Yuma. I removed it after 5 minutes. I'll watch it another time.

Why watch some brand new, big-budget Hollywood studio release, when I can instead watch House of Death, a crappy, ultra-low budget 1981 slasher film that I'd only seen twice before?

And House of Death is as crappy as they come. I mean that in a good way (i.e., many, if not all, hardcore horror fans will be forgiving of its weak points, and still find things to enjoy). I did.

The film was shot in North Carolina, with a cast of unknowns (of which my favorite was "Sara", one of the earlier victims and played by Sharon Alley). It opens with a young couple killed while having sex. (How original is that?) Then there's nothing much for the next 40 minutes. Just "exposition" as we follow high school grads, soon to attend college, enjoying a last minute romp at a county fair. Lots of vapid chatter about sex and drugs and such.

Then Sara is killed. Only, this being a horror film, nobody notices that she's missing.

Well, these kids meet that night at a graveyard to share ghost stories. Another girl is killed, but again, nobody notices. Only one story is told before it starts to rain. The kids all run into an abandoned shack.

I guess this is the "house of death" of the film's title. It better be, because by now there's only about 10 - 15 minutes left in the film. And the body count has barely begun.

As if our slasher has suddenly realized the film's about to end, he suddenly starts kliing in earnest. Lots of dead kids, with the usual pointless clichés. (When some kids go looking for their friend, they find him dead and hanging upside down -- why do so many slashers hang their victims' bodies upside down?)

The remaining three kids return to the shack, our slasher coming after them. He breaks in and we see that it's... (I won't spoil it, but the identity of the killer is as arbitrary a "surprise" as in most slasher films). Anyway, he's killed by police before he can finish his job.

Three kids -- count 'em, three! -- survive. Two girls and a guy. Yes, one of the survivors was the requisite Good Girl. She should also have been the Last Girl. Unfortunately, our lazy slasher waited so long to get started, the film ran out before he could finish his craft.

And he was a pathetic-looking slasher indeed, once we saw him. Weak and mortal. Not at all the "uberpsycho" (my coinage) that is Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees.

So add House of Death to those other slasher films I recently blogged about, the ones that are missing a Last Girl. Films such as Hide and Go Shriek and Splatter University. The more you examine horror's slasher subgenre, the more you realize that while a Last Girl was a common element, she was by no means universal.

House of Death was produced at E.O. studios, a North Carolina production house that was founded by Earl Owensby. Esquire did a story on him some 25 years ago, painting him as some sort of southern Roger Corman. Owensby also did A Day of Judgment and (I think) he may have been involved with Final Exam, though that film was shot in South Carolina.

Final Exam also has a pretty piss-poor looking slasher. Just some guy in a green army jacket, who doesn't look very tough.

I also recently re-watched The Prey, about a superhuman killer, his body burned long ago in a forest fire, who goes around killing campers. This film has been criticized for being padded with scenes of stock footage of nature, but I suppose that could be justified (i.e., the "theme" of this slasher film is that Nature is predatory, beast "preying" upon beast).

Hey, that fits with the title, no?

The Prey was distributed by Roger Corman's company, and features a cast of unknowns. It's not to be confused with English filmmaker Norman J. Warren's Prey (aka Alien Prey).

Prey is not among Warren's better work. His two best films are Inseminoid (aka Horror Planet) and the Suspiria-inspired Terror (a personal favorite, which I must have seen a dozen or so times over the last 25 years).

Monday, January 28, 2008

No "Last Girl" in Splatter University

I'm eligible to vote for the SAG Awards, but when I checked the ballot this year, it was full of films and TV shows that I'd never seen. Like, none of them!

But how can I be expected to see any of this stuff? I'm too busy watching horror movies, many of which I've seen several times already. Why just these past few weeks I re-watched The Haunting, Slaugther High (to name a few) and ... Splatter University!

Splatter University is one of the cheesiest, crappiest, lowest budgeted of the 1980s many cheesy, crappy, low budget slasher films -- yet I like it a lot!

I'm not sure why, but it's got ... something. Its low budget ambiance is similar to that of Don't Look in the Basement. Harsh lighting (no time to set up fill lights), a hollow echo in many of the scenes (no budget for sound blankets), and a no-name cast. Yet Splatter University is one of the few Troma productions which I enjoy -- this and Mother's Day.

What both these Troma films have is that their humor doesn't overwhelm the horror. Tromo is so low budget, their films are often produced in a campy, tongue-in-cheek style. Splatter University and Mother's Day both have that humor, yet the horror remains intact. You can't say that for most Troma films. In many Troma films, the camp kills the horror. (And usually, their films aren't even funny, because the filmmakers and cast are obviously having too much fun onscreen.)

Lloyd Kaufman told me in the summer of 1981 (when I very briefly worked for Troma) that he thought it was the humor that placed Mother's Day) above the typical splatter fare. I got the impression that Mr. Kaufman did not appreciate the horror genre that much; he seemed to hold a greater affection for comedy, and it shows in Troma's output.


If you haven't guessed this already, the Last Girl is (unexpectedly) killed at the end of Splatter University. Stabbed to death in an elevator. (Here she is in an earlier scene, at work, teaching at college).

So it seems that a number of 1980s slasher films (contrary to the cliché) did not have a Last Girl.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Problems with Final Destination 3

A script problem in Final Destination 3. During his sermon at a funeral, the minister says, "We are all equal in the eyes of death."

Student Ian McKinley (Chris Lemche, below) cynically replies that this is nonsense. That the recently deceased girls weren't even 18 years old, whereas Charles Manson made it to 70, Osama bin Laden is still alive, etc.

I sense that screenwriters Glen Morgan and James Wong agree with McKinley's position. Yet their dialog inadvertently supports the minister's position. Death takes the young and old, the innocent and guilty. Death does not judge us, or play favorites. Thus are we all "equal in the eyes of death."

I'm not sure if Morgan and Wong were aware that they wrote the minster as the accurate character, and McKinley as the one spouting nonsense. (Or maybe they did intend it that way, but I sense they intended the opposite of what they wrote).

Also, while watching Final Destination 3, I tried to determine its location. I guessed that it was set in the American northwest. Washington or Oregon, maybe. Then I saw a sign in the film that indicated that we were supposed to be in Pennsylvania. Oh, so that's what Pennsylvania looks like, I thought.

Then when we switched to the subway scene, I thought, I'll bet this is Canada. They often shoot "New York" subway scenes in Vancouver.

Sure enough, the end credits revealed that the film was shot in Vancouver. The northwest.

When will filmmakers realize that Canada does not look like everyplace in the U.S. Toronto does not look like New York. Vancouver does not look like Pennsylvania.

If you're going to shoot in Canada, set the story in Canada, and use Canada's unique locales (as David Cronenberg does so effectively), rather than trying to hide them so you can pretend it's someplace else.

Of course, Final Destination 3 is still enjoyable for its creative death scenes, especially the roller coaster opening.

I am surprised that New Line Cinema funded it. Isn't New Line owned by Time-Warner, which, being a huge corporation, owns some theme park interests? (Don't they all?) Didn't anyone consider that this film should hurt roller coaster attendance? (It certainly validates my avoidance of them!)