Masters of Horror: Pick Me Up (2006)

Masters of Horror: Pick Me Up (2006)

When a bus breaks down in the middle of nowhere, the passengers split. Some decide to stay at the bus and wait for help, some accept an offer of a life from a truck driver and Stacia, a female traveller, opts to walk to the next motel or town. But it turns out that the group have been caught in a bizarre turf war between two serial killers – one who drives trucks and murders hitchhikers and another who hitchhikes and murders the drivers. Now they both have their sights set on Stacia and a cat-and-mouse game begins as to who will have the honour of murdering her first.

 

One of my favourite episodes of the Masters of Horror series, Pick Me Up is a sharp and black-humoured take on the great urban legends of hitchhiking – is the person flagging down a ride going to be a mass-murdering psychopath, or is the person driving going to want to string you up on a meat hook somewhere? It’s a familiar trope for horror and one which is the focus of this episode from the first series. The ‘Master of Horror’ at the helm of this one is the late Larry Cohen, responsible for such cult hits as Maniac Cop, It’s Alive and Q, The Winged Serpent.

It’s no secret that there are two serial killers on the loose in this episode and so the story wastes little time in getting their dirty deeds out into the open. The material is played slightly tongue-in-cheek, with Cohen poking lots of fun at the usual conventions for this type of story – broken down vehicle in the middle of nowhere, truckers saving the day, sleazy motel rooms, etc. The characters from the broken-down bus are all fully self-aware of the folklore surrounding hitchhikers and random people showing up in the middle of nowhere to offer assistance and it’s perversely funny to see one female lecture her boyfriend about being murdered and being called cranky and paranoid, only to suffer the fate a few minutes later.

The main thing that’s different about Pick Me Up that is focuses on the antagonists rather than the protagonist. Usually, the final girl is the one who gets the most screen time and plot development but here, the script opts to feature the serial killers as the main stars. It’s an interesting take on the material which isn’t done enough in horror as we get a glimpse into their psyches and the reasoning behind the slaughter. More attention is paid to their natures, rather than their deeds, and so this episode isn’t full of blood, even if one scene inside a motel room may make some people squeamish, despite there being a reasonable body count for such a short feature. The threat poses by both men is expressed mainly through the quality performances of the two leads.

Long-time Cohen collaborator Michael Moriarty stars as Wheeler, the truck-driving serial killer, and he steals the show in virtually every scene he’s in. Moriarty was always good at playing eccentric characters and you never quite knew what you were going to get with him. But his wily veteran schtick is the perfect match for Warren Kole’s brash upstart, Walker, who comes off as the ‘not quite the boy next door.’ Poor Fairuza Balk gets caught in the middle here, with a one-dimensional screaming female role which could have been given to anyone. The fact her character carries a knife with her and has the bad ass goth girl thing going on should have been the signal for the script to have her standing up to the killers more often. Instead, she spends the second half of the episode tied up and desperately trying to escape. The two men are so well-connected in their few scenes together, that she ends up playing second fiddle.

Pick Me Up it at its best during these tense scenes of one-upmanship between the two serial killers. The first, a meeting outside a motel room, is full of double-entendres and subtle nuances, where both characters are virtually talking in code to each other whilst their female target stands idly in the middle. The second, a more open-ended discussion about their true intentions in the front seat of the cabin, is like watching two stags competing to be the alpha. It’s such a shame that it takes too long for the two to cross paths and a good twenty minutes are wasted before they do. The cat-and-mouse narrative works perfectly for a short feature like this and Pick Me Up reaches its logical conclusion before it runs out of road or does a u-turn and goes back over itself. There’s some just time for one more sting in the tail right at the end, which leaves a very Tales from the Crypt-esque taste in the mouth.

 

Pick Me Up is a great example of a competent director ‘getting’ the Masters of Horror format and working it to its most profitable within the time constraints: plenty of suspense, genuine eeriness, outbursts of violence, unpredictable and all tinged with a morbid humour to keep it entertaining. It’s not the best episode of the series but it might very well be the most enjoyable.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Masters of Horror: We All Scream for Ice Cream (2007)

Masters of Horror: We All Scream for Ice Cream (2007)

Buster is an ice cream man with learning disabilities who loves nothing more than to entertain the kids he serves on his round with magic tricks. But for one group of kids, he’s a complete joke and a prank they play on him backfires spectacularly, inadvertently leading to his death. Thirty years later, Buster returns as a vengeful spirit to get vengeance on the now-adults who caused the accident.

 

The Masters of Horror TV series was a great idea in theory – get together some of the greatest names in horror, give them an hour-long episode and let them work their big screen magic for the small screen. With names like John Carpenter, John Landis, Mick Garris, Joe Dante, Tobe Hooper, Stuart Gordon and Dario Argento, the series debuted to excellent reviews and lasted for two series before its contract wasn’t renewed. Garris, the creator, then secured another studio to make a similar series, Fear Itself, which only lasted for one season and had many of the same names involved. Like all great anthology films and TV shows, you’re going to get a mixed bag. Some episodes are good, some are not so good. Some people will prefer Dante’s work over Argento’s. Some will like the gorier episodes better than the spookier ones.

A cross between A Nightmare on Elm Street and IT, We All Scream for Ice Cream is an effective, if routine, episode of the series which does exactly what it sets out to do. You’ve seen it before and director Tom Holland, of Child’s Play and Fright Night fame, plays it safe with the material. Exploiting the creepiness of clowns always seems like a cheap way to generate some heat, especially given that Buster didn’t have to be dressed as a clown, he could just have been a normal ice cream man. The narrative is fairly straightforward, with surviving members of the gang being bumped off one-by-one as the story moves along, and Holland keeps things ticking over at a nice pace. He holds back plenty of the little details, revealing bits and pieces about what is happening and why – it’s no secret that it is Buster, back from the dead, doing the killing and so the story plays upon that as much as possible.

Holland was capable of making something childlike to be scary in the shape of Chucky, the killer doll, and he does his best here to make Buster to be as frightening as possible. He’s not going to win the awards for the scariest cinematic clown, but he comes fairly close. Buster’s appearances are telegraphed with the haunting ‘We All Scream For Ice Cream’ song, vaguely reminiscent of the little girls singing ‘One, two, Freddy’s coming for you…’ in A Nightmare on Elm Street and with some eerie shots of his ice cream van moving in slow motion, surrounded by mist. The idea of him targeting the children of his tormentors in order to extract revenge has been done before but here the novelty is that the kids are given ice creams by Buster and, upon eating, their fathers are subjected to a hideous voodoo-doll like death.

William Forsythe is excellent as Buster, alternating between the good-natured pre-prank ice cream man and the evil, vengeful ghost. He’s good at delivering the ‘tug on the heart strings and feel sorry for him’ vibe whilst he’s goofing around with the kids in the flashbacks but just as good being the psychotic, snarling almost zombie-like killer in the present. The make-up changes to give him a scarier, more rotting look for the present day are really effective in expressing this bitter and twisted persona. Lee Tergesen, more famous for playing one of Wayne and Garth’s airhead friends in Wayne’s World, does a decent job in the leading role as the one tasked with stopping Buster. The scenes they share in the finale are good, but it’s all rushed and resolved far too quickly, as Tergesen’s character goes into Kevin McAllister Home Alone mode to prepare traps for Buster and defeat him once and for all.

We All Scream for Ice Cream’s trump card is definitely the practical effects on show. When characters die, they are reduced to puddles of melted ice cream. The first couple of instances happen off-screen but once the episode stops pulling it’s punches and starts going for the jugular, you get to see the melting in all of its glory. The episode’s show-stopping moment involves a man melting in a hot tub. It’s such a great display of prosthetics, goo and slime that it’s almost a travesty to see cheap CGI used in a similar sequence in the finale. It’s like they emptied the budget in the hot tub scene rather than saving it for the big finish.

 

We All Scream for Ice Cream might have worked better as a full-blown low budget B-movie but it’s still an entertaining episode of the series. It falls into cliché and familiar territory, but Holland handles it with assured competence and the decent production values keep things ticking over nicely. Just like an ice cream itself, you’ll enjoy it whilst it lasts but it leaves no lasting legacy.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Food of the Gods, The (1976)

The Food of the Gods (1976)

One Taste Is All It Takes!

When a mysterious substance starts bubbling up from the ground on a remote island in British Columbia, a local farmer believes it is a gift from God and decides to feed it to his chickens, causing them to grow to enormous size. However, rats, grubs and wasps also feed on the substance and soon the giant monsters infest the island, which causes problems for other civilians who are visiting.

 

Based on a ‘portion’ of a novel by H.G. Wells (that should read, literally no resemblance to the story whatsoever because a portion could literally be one word!) and brought to the screen by notorious director Bert I. Gordon, of The Amazing Colossal Man and Earth Vs The Spider fame, known for his love of directing movies featuring super-sized creatures, The Food of the Gods is one of the 70s ‘nature runs amok’ movies where Mother Nature had decided to take revenge upon mankind by unleashing a slew of beasts and disasters upon the Earth. It doesn’t bode well and that’s before the review has even properly begun.

The Food of the Gods is an atrociously made low budget film, but it’s nowhere near as bad as its reputation precedes, probably because it’s deadly serious. There’s no messing around here with the way these animals deal with their human lunches, and the cautionary environmental messages are still prevalent today with worries about genetically modified crops and plastic entering the food chain. The Food of the Gods gets straight down to business within the first seven minutes, dispatching a character, showing us the threats and giving us as much story exposition as you’re going to get to explain everything. Don’t even try to think of plausible reasons as to what the substance is or why it exists because you won’t get any. As cheesy and preposterous as things get during the running time, the film itself doesn’t cross over into parody or cheesiness. Everything is played with a straight face and it surprisingly works the better for it.

This stretches to the cast. The characters are dull; the actors behind them aren’t great. The Food of the Gods isn’t exactly your Shakespearean actor type of film, and the limited dialogue the cast have got here doesn’t do much to give them any sort of personality or characteristics. They’re not really fleshed out enough other than to provide names so other characters can lament them when they’re rat chow. In a world where rats and chickens have grown to enormous sizes, the characters do remarkably well to maintain their composure when faced with such absurd sights. A little more hysteria would have added to the film’s drama, with the two younger female characters being the only two to really seem to worry about dying at the hands of these rats.

Gordon’s Beginning of the End back in 1957 featured some truly awful special effects but here we go, nineteen years later, and it seems that the director has remained static in his approach – only this time, he’s not able to mask them as easily with the black and white footage. There’s no stop motion here, no animatronic models or the equivalent – Gordon has the budget of a postage stamp to bring to life these mutated monsters and so a mixture of giant rat and chicken puppet heads for close-ups, real footage of rats rear-projected or shoddy matte work is used to bring these beasties to life. The chicken head provides the film’s most ridiculous scene, when one of the characters strays inside the barn and is attacked by a crew member working the head in front of the camera. The wasps look like brown blobs during their moment in the spotlight. It’s up to the rats to anchor the film and they are the main threat here – a larger variety of animals would have worked better because the rats quickly overstay their welcome. I’m pretty sure there are shots of rats drowning and being shot with a paintball gun – some scenes seem to feature dead rats lying prone whilst their comrades scurry over them – which adds a little sour taste in the mouth. But the effects, for as pathetic as they look, do take a painstaking lot of time to get right and Gordon’s attention to detail has to be commended, even if the final results are laughable.

There is enough shock and gore here to satisfy horror fans though. The kills flow thick and fast and there’s a fair bit of blood splashed around, particularly when the rats get hungry and start nibbling away. I can’t think of too many more squeamish things than seeing rats like this and they will get under your skin, as silly as the blown-up footage looks. The idea that there is some sort of ‘head rat’ – an albino with pink eyes that hangs around in the background whilst the brown rats do all of the dirty work – is laughable but adds for one last jump at the end. The film goes all Night of the Living Dead for the finale, as the survivors barricade themselves in the farmhouse as the rats launch their final onslaught.

 

The Food of the Gods is rightfully lambasted as a terrible B-movie but it’s not all doom and gloom. Embrace the cheapness of Gordon’s butchered version of an H.G. Wells story and there’s a lot of entertainment to be had. There’s a good reason this has become a cult classic over the years.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆