Tag Slashers

Slaughter Studios (2002)

Slaughter Studios (2002)

The Place Where Nightmares Come True

Young filmmaker Steve discovers that Slaughter Studios, the place where his favourite B-Movies were filmed, is going to be demolished. The studios had been closed twenty years earlier after the death of a young star while shooting a scene. Determined to shoot one last horror film there, he gets a cast and crew together and sneaks into the studio the night before the demolition in order to make a cheap horror film. However strange things begin to happen and they soon find out that they are not alone in the studio.

 

Great. Another low budget horror film about a bunch of low budget horror filmmakers making a low budget horror film. It’s a well-worn out premise and the whole film-within-a-film has been done to death. Originally starting out as a remake of The Slumber Party Massacre, Slaughter Studios morphed into a spoof of not only the slasher films of the 80s but the cheapo sci-fi horrors of the 50s when the writers realised that they were able to use Roger Corman’s old film studios in California. The studios were in the process of being torn down so a quick twelve-day shoot allowed the filmmakers an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create something bigger than they expected.

What comes out the other end is a surprisingly entertaining slasher film which acts better as a low budget parody on low budget horror filmmaking. Slaughter Studios enjoys itself during the first half of the film, setting up a load of predictable clichés and poking fun at them in the process. It’s not exactly cutting edge satire but the comedy works well enough to give the proceedings a nice light-hearted tone. The dialogue is pretty sharp at times and once you get past the annoying accents put on by some of the cast and their smarmy “I know everything about horror” attitude, there’s a lot of mileage to get out of the idea that these idiots are really making a low budget film with a cast and crew of about ten people. If you love old school B-movies then there will be plenty of homages and nods to tropes that you’ll be familiar with – even the title of the film-within-a-film harks back to memories of the sci-fi trash released in the 50s with the glorious name of ‘Naughty Sex Kittens vs The Giant Preying Mantis.’

Slaughter Studios has production values which defy the limitations of the budget. For a start, it helped that the filmmakers were able to use the old studios whilst they were being demolished. Having access to some sets which would have been way beyond the budget of the film really adds a nice sense of atmosphere. You really get the feeling that this is a massive film studio filled with dozens of rooms and corridors, all left to the ravages of time with cobwebs and dust covering everything that has been left behind. The art direction is spot on, with these dingy sets being lit with a variety of coloured lighting to give them an unsettling and ominous vibe. At times, the film has the kind of charm that a fairground ghost train or high-brow Halloween haunt exhibits. It doesn’t exactly look like a top class production but you know it’s been designed with heart and soul.

The problem with Slaughter Studios is that it takes too long to get to what it sets out to be at the beginning – a slasher film. The set-up is long and whilst it’s not boring watching the antics of the crew, it seems like something of a deviation from where the film should have been heading. There is about forty minutes of watching these people attempt to make the film, with a few little morsels of plot advancement thrown in. But it’s nothing that couldn’t have been shortened and sped up a bit to keep the pace going. Once the slashing does begin, things move rapidly enough and the cast and crew begin to dwindle one-by-one. There’s some decent gore involved and the kills are perfunctory if nothing else with a variety of spears, pickaxes and other implements being used to shorten the cast number. The film knows what it is trying to be and doesn’t shy away from getting exploitative when it needs to. The female cast have been hired for obvious reasons and are required to disrobe with alarming frequency, with the lovely, late Lorissa McComas winning the award for most time spent topless.

The cast play mostly to type. Peter Stanovich is the stereotypical English auteur in charge of the production and mangles a bad accent and even worse dialogue trying to sound posh and artistic. He is so blinded by believing that he is making a good film that he fails to see how ludicrous everything is.  The rose-tinted glasses approach rings home true with a lot of Roger Corman’s studio output over the decades – films so terrible that the directors must have believed they were making Lawrence of Arabia or The Godfather. Apart from Lorissa McComas’ ample bosom, Tara Killian steals the show as the diva-like blond actress who demands that certain concessions are made for her to star in the film. Rounding off the “fresh from film school” clichés are the sound guy and a sleazy actor who just happens to be Indian, killing two stereotypes with one stone here.

 

Slaughter Studios is a bit goofy, a bit silly and a lot of fun. It works far better as a spoof of low budget horror filmmaking than it does as an outright slasher but there’s plenty for genre fans to get stuck into here. Hardly the most demanding ninety minutes to sit through, it would have worked far better had it just continued to spoof rather than try to get serious in the final third.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

New Year’s Evil (1980)

New Year's Evil (1980)

This New Year’s, you’re invited to a killer party…

During a New Year’s Eve celebration, New Wave rock show host Diane gets a phone call saying that when New Year’s strikes in each time zone in America, someone will be murdered – and she will be the last one. Though no one believes him at first, once the bodies begin to pile up the police realise that he’s the real deal and begin to search for him before time runs out and Diane becomes the next target.

 

One of the last of the holiday-themed horror films from the 80s that I hadn’t seen, New Year’s Evil is relatively routine, overly plodding and downright dull at times, lightened up by the odd moment of inspiration. I mean they managed to put horrors spins onto every other holiday of the year (take your pick from Friday the 13th, Halloween, any number of Christmas-themed horrors, April Fool’s Day, My Bloody Valentine, Prom Night, a couple of birthday slashers and of course, Mother’s Day) so why not New Year as well? After all, it’s one of the busiest nights of the year around the world and I’m sure that some people use it to create as much mischief or mayhem as possible whilst everyone is out partying and celebrating.

Tagged along in the slasher bracket because that was what was popular at the time, New Year’s Evil isn’t so much of a typical entry into that sub-genre. The body count is pretty low, there’s not a lot of stalking and we know who the killer is before the first third of the film is over, despite the pointless presence of some red herrings. If we’re shown who the killer is, what is the point in providing these seedy, weird characters and giving them a load of screen time? None of them further the plot in any shape. In fact the film makes the killer something of the prime focus of the film – we spend more time with him prowling around looking for his next victim than we do with some of the other characters. It’s a different approach to the norm – usually slashers introduce a bunch of characters to be the main focus of the film, give them some development and then have the killer come in and start taking them apart. Sometimes these characters work, sometimes they don’t depending on the script. But at least they’re the focus, and some of them will last all the way until the end, giving us a reason to emotionally invest in them. Here, the characters show up briefly for a few minutes of screen time before they’re killed off and the psycho moves on to the next non-character. There’s no one to root for – we can’t cheer on the killer (for obvious reasons) and there’s no point in pretending to care for any character that gets a handful of lines before dying.

On the flip side to this, having the killer as the focus of the film (and he’s not meant to be a sympathetic, tragic character either) gives us a rare chance to see some of the lengths that a determined psycho will go to in order to succeed. The killer would have been a better undercover agent than a murderer as he adopts a number of costumes and guises throughout the film in order to get close to, win the trust of, and then murder his victim. From a mild-mannered priest to a charismatic doctor, this killer loves dressing up. Since he does a lot of talking, we get to know the guy quite well within the running time and Kip Niven does a fair job of making him into a fully-rounded character. He’s a bit nutty and completely misogynist but at least there are attempts to flesh him out. Splashed on the back of the DVD cover is the killer wearing a strange mask which he does wear late in the film and comes off far more interesting and scary than anything he had come up with in the past. I guess this is how the film was sold though – another masked killer on the rampage.

This would be all well and good if the film was any decent but New Year’s Evil is bland beyond belief. As I’ve said, the body count is pretty low and we’re mainly subjected to the killer’s attempts to carry out his next attack in between. This is interspersed with a number of awfully-dated scenes set in the music phone-in show which showcase a lot of terrible late 70s/early 80s fashion and music – the hairstyles and crazy clothes during the ‘mosh pit’ scenes are laughable, especially looking back over thirty years later. The soundtrack is awful too, with the title track being replayed a number of times during the film (as if the rock show only has one record to repeat). There are a few other New Wave tracks in there which help to pad out the running time far longer than it needs to be as the radio show’s in-house band perform live.

Though the body count is low and the kills are pretty bloodless when they come, they are at least more original than the usual methods of dispatch – how many times can you say you’ve seen someone handcuffed to the bottom of a lift (not quite a kill but near enough) or choked to death with a bag of marijuana? The problem the film has is that this killer doesn’t stalk people or wait in the shadows, he gets to know them first. I don’t watch horror films to see Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees have a cup of tea with their next victim before slicing their heads off. This approach kills off any attempts at suspense or tension or even scares.

 

The basic problem with New Year’s Evil is that it doesn’t really know how it wants to set itself out. By trying to be different with its focus on the killer, it loses everything that would have made the film at least a cheesy watch. If it wanted to be a slasher and sit right at home in the ‘Golden Age’ of the slasher, then it went about everything the wrong way. With 1980 and 1981 arguably being the two best years for slashers, you’re spoiled for choice and have no reason whatsoever to want to check out New Year’s Evil – unless you’re a slasher completist.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Scary Movie (2000)

Scary Movie (2000)

No mercy. No shame. No sequel.

A group of none-too-bright teenagers are stalked by a masked killer who wants them dead because of their involvement in a car accident that happened last Halloween. The kids are also being stalked by a television news reporter determined to get the story. One by one, the young friends are dispatched in a grisly and ridiculous fashion.

 

First watching Scary Movie upon its release around fifteen years ago, I was scathing in my review, criticising its consistent use of crude gags to lampoon the 90s teen horror fad rather than sophisticated spoofing. However, having then sat through progressively worse sequels and a raft of similarly-themed pop-culture parodies like Meet the Spartans, I decided to check it out and see if was as bad as I remembered it. Whether it’s maturity through age or the fact that there doesn’t seem to be too many decent comedies being anymore but I actually liked Scary Movie this time around. Sure it’s still got its fair share of bottom-of-the-barrel toilet jokes but there’s so many jokes I missed first time that you’ll have so much to process by the time it’s finished, it will all depend on what frame of mind you were in. Feeling daft, then the bad taste will rise to the top. Feeling more relaxed and you’ll enjoy the cleverer jokes.

To talk about a plot in a film like Scary Movie is pushing it. It follows the same story as Scream, of a group of friends being tormented by a masked killer, but that’s about where the similarities lie. Basically the story derails and detours so many times, depending on what films the writers wanted to spoof next, so it’s best to sit back and wait for the jokes to fly. Some of the jokes will be dead-on-arrival (basically anything that the irritating Shorty, played by Marlon Wayans, says is just not funny in the slightest), some will depend on your mood and others require more thought. There’s dick jokes, fart jokes, poop jokes and sex jokes to pander to the lowest denominators but then for every one of these, there’s a witty one-liner, a clever in-joke or a subtle dig at another film. It’s the scattergun approach that worked well for Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker with the likes of Airplane! and The Naked Gun though the offensive content has been upped dramatically since those days. I’d be hard-pressed to say that half of the jokes work but the fact that there are hundreds of jokes means that the hit rate is still pretty good by the end of the film.

The bulk of the gags come at the expense of Scream. It’s easy to see why: Craven’s classic teen slasher is ripe for the picking with its infamous masked villain, copious plot twists and genuinely tense moments ready to be laughed at. Ironically, Scream itself was a parody of slasher films, with numerous in-jokes and clichés aimed towards an audience who knew the genre well. As a result, Scary Movie can only take these in-jokes and clichés and do daft things with them rather than clever spoofing. Sometimes, Scary Movie just replays entire scenes out from Scream without doing much with them, making the idea of this being a spoof rather a null point, particularly the copycat finale where it seems that the writers ran out of jokes or another scene in which one character actually says “didn’t this happen in some film?” to which the reply is “Scream.” Yes, we know that you’re spoofing Scream but you don’t need to explicitly tell us.

On the occasion when it does something different, the results are funny. A parody of Scream 2’s murder in the theatre provides plenty of amusement as the victim’s constant chatting through the film leads to the rest of the audience taking matters into their own hands before the killer has chance. The I Know What You Did Last Summer spoof is also decent, if played out a little too long. The pop-culture references are rife throughout the film. If it isn’t getting the likes of Carmen Electra to poke fun of herself, it’s throwing in Matrix gags, parading brand names around like they were part of the sponsorship deals, cementing itself in a specific time with the ‘Wazzup’ Budweiser commercial rip, scenes which echo The Blair Witch Project or bizarre references like The Usual Suspects, Basic Instinct and Amistad (though this bit was pretty funny).

Likeable Anna Faris got her big screen break with this one and she plays the lead female role though, as this is an ensemble piece, she’s not the constant focus. Faris has a natural ability for deadpan and attract empathy from the audience when something goes wrong, making her a lovable oaf much in the fashion that Leslie Nielsen played his Lt. Frank Drebin in The Naked Gun films. Shannon Elizabeth solidified her status as one of the early 00s most searched for actresses with this and American Pie. As stated, Marlon Wayans is one of the most annoying men on the planet and his scenes are painful to sit through. Thankfully his brother Shawn Wayans is much better, playing the part of ‘is-he-or-isn’t-he-gay?’ Ray with some great delivery. Final note must to go to the underrated Kurt Fuller who plays the Sheriff. Fuller is one of those faces you see pop up in all sorts of things from Ghostbusters II to Wayne’s World as snooty businessmen or slimy executives. His timing is perfect in this, especially during the scene in which he’s asking Cindy to look at some photos in the police station – only the photos aren’t of perpetrators but of him in raunchy poses!

 

It’s hard to review a film like Scary Movie because of the sheer content of it. For everyone who hates one set of jokes, there’ll be someone else who hates another set. The bottom line is that you will need to have seen the main films that this spoofs in order to get the most out of it. If you’re prepared to sit through a lot of crude jokes to get really funny material, then you’ll be in for a treat. Likewise, if you feel the subtle humour doesn’t do it for you, there’ll be another bodily fluid joke along in a few minutes. There’s something here for everyone and that’s not exactly a bad thing. Hardly a classic spoof and definitely a product of its time (which makes me feel really old!) but still worth a look.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Texas Chainsaw (2013)

Texas Chainsaw (2013)

Evil wears many faces.

When word gets out about what happened at the Sawyer farmhouse, Sheriff Hooper heads straight there to demand that they hand over the perpetrator. With the Sawyer clan fortified inside and refusing to come out, an angry mob descends upon the building and torches it to the ground after a shoot-out. One of the mob finds a survivor in the barn along with a baby girl. Taking the baby and killing the mother, the man decides to raise her with his wife who was unable to have children. Moving ahead to the present time, Heather is a now a young woman who receives papers to say that she has inherited a house from a grandma she didn’t know existed. Finding out that her parents aren’t her biological parents, Heather and some of her friends head to Texas to check out the house, unaware that Heather isn’t the only descendant of the Sawyer clan left.

 

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of horror’s greatest films. One of the most brutal, unrelenting ordeals of all-time, as the years go by it seems that the film becomes more and more appreciated for the nightmarish masterpiece it is. The grainy, pseudo-documentary style brought to life the horrors of Leatherface and his cannibal family in shockingly realistic fashion. It’s an assault on the senses and makes you feel like you need a shower after watching because you’ve been put through the ringer along with the cast. With the horror boom in the 80s, it was only a matter of time before someone went back and revisited the iconic Leatherface and a couple of sequels followed, none of which did the original any justice whatsoever. Then way back in 2003 (that sounds really weird saying that but its eleven years ago!), Platinum Dunes kicked off the whole horror remake fad with their pretty decent re-imagining of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. A prequel followed which wasn’t so decent and Leatherface was sent back into oblivion….until now.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre films have never adhered to continuity. The patchwork sequels picked and chose what parts of the original they wanted to follow on from and never followed on from each other. The Platinum Dunes remake in 2003 and its resultant prequel exist in their own bubble. Now along comes a glossy sequel which would have fit in better with the modern films but decides to go back to its roots instead. Texas Chainsaw kicks off minutes after the moment that the 1974 original ends. Yes, despite the passage of thirty-nine years of real life, the film decides that it would be a great idea to deal with the immediate aftermath of the original attacks. Talk about confusing – most of this film’s target audience will wrongfully assume that the 2003 remake is the only ‘original’ out there anyway.

Whilst the idea is nice in theory and it is executed as best as it has any right to do to begin with, it doesn’t quite fit right with the original due to the cleaner, glossier digital print. Then come all of the temporary lapses in logic that this film doesn’t have answers for if we take the thirty-nine years between films as being some reflection of film time (given the cars and clothing from the 70s in the prologue and the iPhones from the 2000s and 2010s used in the modern part of the film). This would make Leatherface about sixty so why is he so agile and spritely? Why does Heather look like she’s in her early twenties when surely if she’s a baby in the 70s she’d be pushing her forties?

Texas Chainsaw’s faults lie squarely at its bizarre script. Not only is there the questionable decision to follow on from the original but the narrative then sets about becoming a poor man’s remake of the original, with similar set-ups and death scenes (mallets to the head and bodies thrown onto hooks after investigating strange rooms). Leatherface is clearly the antagonist, smashing and slicing the teenage cast with his usual array of meat-cutting utensils. The sad thing is that we saw all of this during the recap of the events of the original and so showing us newer versions of the same scenes just keeps reminding us of how superior the original was. Granted the film is quite bloody during this first half, with one unlucky victim being chainsawed in half being amongst the scant highlights. The film tries to make use of its 3-D gimmick as best as it can but most of the shots are predictably pointless. This half completely goes against the grain of the original, showcasing gory set pieces and throwing CGI blood around like confetti in an attempt to mask its blatant shortcomings.

However in the final third, there is an even more random development where Heather finds out she is related to the Sawyers and due to events in the film, Leatherface becomes her saviour – despite the fact that he just butchered her friends. The novelty of seeing Leatherface as an anti-hero wears off in about two minutes when you realise he just does the same things only to different people. This kind of sums up the whole film: once certain novelty factors have worn off, Texas Chainsaw is just your very average, sub-par rather, teen horror film which just so happens to include one of horror’s most iconic characters. Remove Leatherface, rename the film something else and you have any number of backwoods horrors with demented hillbilly killers beating a path of destruction through a teenage cast. Throw in some generic ‘boo’ scares, a contemporary soundtrack which doesn’t invoke any sort of atmosphere whatsoever and a bunch of unlikeable, one-note characters and you’ve got pretty much any teen horror film released in the last fifteen years.

Three former Chainsaw alumni appear in roles in a nice nod to the films that preceded this one: the original Leatherface, Gunnar Hansen, pops up as one of the older Sawyers in the introduction; Bill Moseley, who played ‘Chop Top’ in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, takes over from Jim Siedow as Drayton Sawyer for the introduction; and Marilyn Burns, who was put through the ringer by the cannibal clan in the original, is Verna Carson, Heather’s grandmother, who tells her of her family ties.

One last gripe: why knock off the Massacre part of the title?

 

Perhaps we’re entering into a new phase of horror. Instead of the pointless remakes, will Texas Chainsaw kick off a fad where sequels are made to films which are thirty and forty years old in an attempt to appease both fans of the original and introduce them to a younger audience? Actually, I doubt it. Texas Chainsaw is dire. Even younger genre fans will smell the foul stench of death a mile away. Leatherface is an old man now and it’s about time he was retired permanently. Texas Chainsaw is such a wasted opportunity to kick off a real series of linked sequels and reboot the legend of the Sawyer family for a new generation.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Girls Nite Out (1982)

Girls Nite Out (1982)A group of college students celebrating a basketball victory are about to take part in the radio station’s annual scavenger hunt. Unbeknownst to them, a lunatic from the local asylum has escaped and kills the student who is the university’s bear mascot before stealing the costume. As the students embark on a night of fun and frolics, they fall victim one-by-one to the killer.

 

Girls Nite Out is a little known slasher from the early 80s. There’s usually a good reason for that and within fifteen minutes of this, you’ll know exactly what. Someone forgot to preview the film before release because otherwise they’d have realised just how slow and pointless the opening half an hour is. The film introduces far too many student characters in a short space of time and expects us to remember who they all are later on. In fact I’d swear a whole load of new characters were drafted in when they get involved with the scavenger hunt. Whilst I’m all for a bit of character development, this opening salvo goes on way too long. Goofing around, drinking, smoking and splitting up with each other seem to be the only things these college kids do. They’ve got relationships worse than some of the infamous soap operas.

You’d think that all of this character build-up to actually lead somewhere later in the film but you’d be wrong. With too many characters in the film, some of them get side-lined for too long. Others come into the fray who appeared to be minor players earlier on. Even with this characterisation put to the sword, you’d hope that with an abundance of drunken students staggering around campus, that the body count would be significantly high. Sadly, not even half of these characters are killed off. It just gets me as to why so much time is spent developing them all and setting them up for the chop. But hey, the party scene needs a lot of people dancing and drinking and having fun.

After what must be the longest sorority party scene on film, the killer finally starts cutting down the cast about forty minutes in when the scavenger hunt begins. Pity that no one really seems to bother with the hunt save for a couple of girls. The rest of the characters continue about their business like nothing is going on. Considering the scavenger hunt was supposed to be the big central event where everything kicked off, it’s a let-down to see how little focus there is on it. But let-downs are common in a film which runs the slasher gauntlet but fails to provide even the most miniscule amount of nudity. For an early 80s slasher, this is unusual.

Even during the second half of the film, there’s still too much goofiness surrounding the more serious slash. This isn’t meant to be a spoof so the amount of time the screenplay spends on having the characters talking wacky or doing crazy student things is just mind-blowing. The thing with Girls Nite Out is that once this silliness calms down and the film spends time on its horror elements, it’s a pretty effective shocker. It’s no Halloween for sure and it’s as derivative as hell but there are some good jumps, a few moments of tension and an atmosphere which slowly gets worse and worse as the killer strikes. Lighting is spot on and there’s some decent stalk scenes which crank up the heart a few beats.

The bear costume sounds like a daft idea for a killer but it’s actually handled fairly reasonably here, as the killer modifies the hands with knives, turning it into some sort of hairy Freddy Kruger prototype in the process! Even though these are only knives, the weapons and the manner in which they are used, seem novel and original. The costume looks comical but this is perfect material for a slasher film, adding a nice element of creepiness to proceedings. Some of the kill scenes are fairly brutal too, though not so much to do with the physical violence on display but of the misogynistic malice shown by the killer, shouting “whore, slut, bitch” as he slices his way through the cast. Don’t worry though, as the film progresses the kills get bloodier and bloodier. You’ll get little of the way of eye-pops or decapitations or even more standard axes in the head and a lot of kills do happen off-screen but those that are seen are reasonable.

Only notable cast member Hal Holbrook completely phones in his performance as the campus security guard with a link between the killer’s original spree and the current one. I guess the majority of the budget went on paying royalties to the artists whose songs are played on the radio station (there’s lots of famous ones too). The rest of the interchangeable cast fall into usual stereotypes (jocks, nerds, etc.) but they don’t follow the standard character arcs. The nice and wholesome pretty girl who looks to be getting set up as the ‘Final Girl’ doesn’t face off with the killer and spends most of the film drinking and having sex. Her boyfriend, Teddy, who could be called a ‘Final Boy’ even though that is a huge stretch, doesn’t cover himself in glory, cheating on her and being a general asshole throughout the film. But the film never plays true to form across a number of tropes and even ends abruptly, finishing on one of the most random and confusing endings to a slasher ever. After Girls Nite Out finishes, you’ll wonder whether what you had just seen was genius or incompetence. There is seemingly no resolution and the revealing of the killer is totally out of leftfield.

 

Girls Nite Out is one for the slasher purist only and even then it’s a bit of a slog to get to anything remotely genre-worthy. The novelty of the killer’s costume may be worth a shout and the pop soundtrack keeps things flowing very 80s, if nothing else. But this is sporadically entertaining and instantly forgettable.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

House of Wax (2005)

House of Wax (2005)

Hunted.Murdered.Displayed.

A group of teenagers are on a road trip to watch the most important football game of the year. On the way, they run into a detour which forces them to stop and camp for the night so that they can finish the trip the day after. After an encounter with a mysterious truck-driving local and finding that one of the cars has been damaged, two of the group accept a lift from a local to the nearest town so that they can get a replacement part and be on their way. The town’s central attraction is a now-defunct wax museum and after exploring it and seeing how realistic the dummies are, the pair soon realise that there is something more sinister to the town than meets the eye. They must find a way to escape before they become the next permanent exhibits.

 

Having had previous success with remakes of other 50s classics such as House on Haunted Hill and Thir13n Ghosts, Dark Castle Entertainment saw that there was potential to revisit further older properties and so turned their attention to House of Wax, immortalised in 1953 by a barmy Vincent Price and a novel 3D production. The resulting horror film borrows more heavily from cult late 70s horror Tourist Trap and the 80s slasher than it does the Vincent Price original but that’s not a bad thing. Playing more like a traditional teenage body count flick where a mentally-deficient psychopath stalks and kills a variety of young adults, House of Wax delivers far, far more than I had envisioned it would. In fact, I’m not ashamed to say that I really enjoyed it.

House of Wax features the traditional set-up: a bunch of teenagers on a road trip end up in the middle of nowhere and fall victim to a weirdo wearing a mask. There’s nothing new to see here. But story was never the strength of the slasher film and so once the inevitable exposition has taken place and the characters fall into the path of the killer, then that’s where these films begin to earn their money. House of Wax does that in earnest. But it does take a little while to get there. The character development and introductions take too long and even then there are some characters we know very little about. Stick with it though because once they arrive at the house of wax, then it steps up a couple of notches.

The two main reasons that this works as well as it does is the production design and the kills. First of all the stylish production design. The house of wax is a really unsettling, creepy place which is made entirely of wax and is populated by the wax-encased bodies of previous victims (thus cementing the link with the original). It does its job perfectly well and isn’t over-used. In fact, the whole wax angle is really played up here as a pivotal component to the plot, leading to the finale which involves fire and lots of CGI. The wax models are unnerving and, better yet, we get to see the waxing process completed in all of its horrific delight. Watch as one unsuspecting teen is strapped to a table and subjected to a tortuous process which is a one-way ticket to becoming the next attraction. You’ll think twice before the next time you’re in Madame Tussauds!

This leads me on to the kills. House of Wax doesn’t hold back on the gore and the brutality where many a recent horror flick has shied away from. There’s nothing played for laughs – it’s all mean-spirited where pain and suffering is the name of the game. In many respects, House of Wax borrow this nastiness from Saw a year earlier, with its depictions of carnage bordering on the realistic. Case in the point: the aforementioned ‘waxing’ scene. But there’s lots of other stuff including Achilles tendons being snipped, fingers cut off, decapitations and much more. Perhaps the film’s sickliest moment comes at the literal hands of a road kill pit, the thought of which just makes me nauseous. It’s this sense that something even more disturbing is just around the corner which keeps the film going.

With all of this eye-candy comes a host of the usual young suspects in the cast, many of whom were plucked from American TV shows. There are two notable actresses though. The first is the star, Elisha Cuthbert, more famous across the world for her Penelope Pitstop-style escapades in 24 as Jack Bauer’s eternally-suffering daughter. Cuthbert got a lot of unfair stick for her portrayal of the character which was down the script writers rather than her ability. She’s a decent actress and gets to show off a little of that here with a solid performance as the ‘Final Girl.’ A lot was made about Paris Hilton starring in this too and a lot of knives were sharpened ready to savage her. I’m not her biggest fan and I opt not to give her the airtime that her publicity craves because I have no interest in her as a person. I don’t hate her, just think that she is irrelevant. However I will stick up for her here in saying that she is by no means the worst part of the film. Her character is one-dimensional, her lines are limited and her glorious demise in the film was much-publicised before release. But she’s alright in the role. Without her paparazzi baggage, you wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at her being in this.

 

At times it can appear that House of Wax is more style over substance (and I’m looking at you, finale) but underneath the glossy surface is a gloriously nasty slasher which delivers the goods. The slasher material feels fresh, the wax elements are played to perfection and the cast do decent jobs of making it all seem believable. Highly underrated but maybe in ten years, we’ll look back on this in guilty pleasure fondness the way that we look back at some of the 80s slashers now.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Axe Giant (2013)

Axe Giant (2013)

This Tall Tale is Murder

A group of young adults serving their sentence at a first-time offenders’ boot camp discover that the legend of the giant lumberjack Paul Bunyan is real but is much more horrifying than they could have ever imagined when they disturb the grave of his treasured blue ox.

 

Ah American folklore. Fresh off watching two films about the mysterious Bunnyman and his antics, I’ve now stumbled upon a film about another character from legend, this time more rooted in history than the more recent floppy-eared fiend. Paul Bunyan, a giant lumberjack from American folklore, has been the subject of various literary works, musical pieces and commercial productions and now finds his way into horror films. Though I’m sure the same Paul Bunyan who featured in a number of children’s stories is a far cry from this axe-wielding brute with a face only a mother could love.

I thought I’d seen the start of Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunya before but then I realised I had: whenever a film has introduced its main characters as juvenile offenders having to serve some sort of rehabilitation programme/community service (see Grizzly Park, See No Evil, etc.) then it follows the same “roll call” scene which basically provides us with all of the character depth that they are going to have. One supporting character even asks the duty officer “is this necessary?” when he reads out their names and past crimes. As a member of the very limited target audience, I can say no it isn’t as I’ve seen this film before and know which characters are supposed to be the slut, token black guy, jock and so forth. But we get spoon fed it anyway just in case you weren’t sure! The set-up is quick and painless and the character development brief and merciful yet it still takes the film ages to get going.

Despite the title giving away massive clues as to what sort of threat these characters are going to face, it is quite happy to shield the brute from us for as long as possible. You’ll get glimpses of him and, for one unlucky bear, more than a glimpse. I kind of figured that the director and writers would have gone in for the kill early and given us the money shots from the start, such is the norm for these type of films now. Gone are the days of directors crafting the monster before the final reveal (Jaws anyone?) and whilst I’m arguing in favour of films following Axe Giant’s path by holding back a little, it just seems silly to do it when the POSTER SHOWS US THE MONSTER! Paul Bunyan is given some back story and it’s too daft to take seriously (the disease he contracts sure has lots of side effects!) but provides token flashbacks for more gore and shenanigans, including the brutal dispatch of Dan ‘Grizzly Adams’ Haggerty.

Funnily enough, Axe Giant wins pretty much all of its star rating with the practical effects it uses for the giant. Think back to the 50s with The Amazing Colossal Man and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and you’ll get a sense of how this effect is rendered. It’s a guy in make-up who has been superimposed onto a number of sets courtesy of some green screen work (rather that than some dodgy CGI giant like the dreadful Ogre). Though the two techniques don’t mesh together well, the fact that it’s an actual actor gives the giant a real physical presence. Credit must go to effects man Robert Kurtzman’s Creature Corps for designing the make-up, ‘borrowing’ the demented, inbred hillbilly look from the Victor Crowley character from the Hatchet films to create a rather large, aggressive beast who has sculpted himself an axe just as big and powerful as he is.

But the practical effects stop there and that’s a big disappointment as the blood and guts is mainly CGI from there on it. Limbs chopped off, characters sliced into half and other nastiness involving the axe is all brought to life with the ‘wonders’ of CGI. It looks awful – so artificial and ‘clean’ if there is a word best to describe them. Some of the kills could have looked amazing if they had gone down the old school route but instead they’ve taken the quicker, cheaper CGI route and ruined some potentially-awesome moments. And whilst Bunyan looks good on his own, as soon as he starts appearing in front of green screens, the CGI falls apart. This is not a good film to watch for cutting edge special effects. The team have tried to punch above their weight but sometimes knowing where you stand is better. When the effects provoke laughter rather than fear or tension, you know something is wrong.

Joe Estevez, young brother of Martin Sheen and uncle of Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen, gets one of the top billed roles. Sadly, Joe, unlike his older brother, has not had the glittering film career and has been appearing in low rent rubbish like this for years, no doubt using his name to make his way. Joe sounds like Martin a lot so close your eyes in a few scenes, pretend it is him and kid yourselves into thinking this is some glossy production. Grizzly Adams aside, there’s no one else that stands out in the cast. Most of the young cast are so anonymous that it’s a wonder they even bothered reading the script. Replace the actors with the same ethnic disposition and you’d be hard-pressed to notice the change. But hey, some of them meet their match at the hands of a giant axe!

 

Axe Giant is a film about a giant, killer lumberjack that turns into a giant lumbering mess of bad writing, laughable special effects and general boredom. It’s almost as if the writers thought of the crazy central premise and then struggled to really pad it out, opting to use the tried-and-tested slasher formula in the end. The result is a film which had potential to be a silly time-waster in the right hands but from the man who brought us Crocodile 2: Death Roll and Planet Raptor, I expected nothing and was rightly given it.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Bunnyman Massacre, The (2011)

The Bunnyman Massacre (2011)

Legend, urban myth or true story? You decide

Driving home through a remote region of Southern California, a group of teenage friends are harassed by a massive dump truck that plays cat-and-mouse with them along the stretch of road and which eventually forces them off the road. Seeking help at the only farm they have seen for miles, the group unwittingly fall into the clutches of a psychotic cannibal family whose number include the Bunnyman, a crazed madman so deformed and deranged from years of abuse that he wears a bunny outfit to commit his unspeakable crimes.

 

The Bunny Man is an American urban legend which stems from a couple of incidents in the 70s of a person in a bunny outfit threatening a couple of people with an axe in two separate incidents. The legend has spawned annual tourist pilgrimages as people hunt for the elusive Bunnyman. That’s pretty much it. Hardly the stuff of nightmares. But in an era where remakes, sequels, prequels and re-imaginings are pretty much the only thing that the main studios focus on, any ‘fresh’ material that independent filmmakers can rustle up is welcome.

It’s a shame then that The Bunnyman Massacre* is a complete dud. Far from telling an interesting and original story, the script has a bunch of teenagers fall prey to the Bunnyman in Texas Chainsaw Massacre fashion, complete with requisite psychotic hillbilly family (and chainsaw to boot). It’s just a sub-standard rehash of the usual backwoods tropes but not before a quick trip to Spielberg territory with the Duel-like opening salvo featuring the truck. All this tells me is that writer and director Carl Lindbergh has seen a lot of films and that he can recycle material like no man’s business. How about showing some originality? What Lindbergh fails to realise is that, and this opening scene is a perfect example, he is no Spielberg. Hell, he’s no Tobe Hooper either. There’s no excitement, no tension and certainly no point. Bizarrely, the friends decide to ‘wait out’ the truck and so we have the ridiculous visage of a group of teenagers in a car with a huge dump truck with blacked-out windows parked behind. Lest we forget that the truck was just trying to kill them a minute ago! Pacing is a real issue.

Intelligence isn’t high on the characters’ agenda and this is just one of many stupid decisions they make. Obviously they’re designed to further the plot and channel it the way in which the writer wants it to go but when they’re as dumb as this, it kind of takes the realism out of the situation. No one in their right mind would do the things that these characters do – not bringing food, drink or a mobile phone on a long road trip being numero uno! As a result of their stupidity, the characters have a likeability of zero and the terrible script gives us little reason to root for them when the Bunnyman makes his appearance. Usually in films like this, you’re rooting for the killer just to get rid of as many annoying cast members as possible. Sadly that isn’t even the case here.

The Bunnyman Massacre reeks of doing what so many contemporary horror films try to do – create an iconic villain so that they can make a killing out of sequels ala Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers, Pinhead, etc. With the urban legend as its source, the Bunnyman character here looks every bit as ridiculous as it sounds. It’s a lumbering costume with big, fluffy feet which shouldn’t provide as much mobility as it appears to have. Coupled with the madman’s fondness for heavy chainsaws, there’s no way that the characters shouldn’t easily outrun him. Only this is horror movie territory we’re in and so obviously the Bunnyman is just as nimble and stealthy as his animal namesakes. If you’ve seen one demented hillbilly psycho go to down on a bunch of teenagers then you’ve seen all of them and Bunnyman is no different, treading the same path as his predecessors. The costume adds nothing to the film, save for more inconsistencies with the plot and some physics dilemmas that need answering. Even worse is that the film is shot entirely during the day so the Bunnyman costume is never given the opportunity to look creepy in the dark or twilight. Seeing it in full daylight just adds laughter to the film when I’m sure this wasn’t the original intent!

The Bunnyman Massacre isn’t overly gore given that the killer wields a chainsaw. In fact there’s only really one make-up effect shown in the entire film – that of blood spray. Someone is attacked off camera and there’s a spray of blood which covers something nearby. Yeah it may look fine once but it’s clear that it’s the effects teams’ only skill. There’s a body count of about ten so Bunnyman does get pretty busy but between the opening kills and his carnage towards the end, there’s little to go on. There is one scene of obligatory torture which pushes the envelope of taste a little too far considering how dull the rest of the film had been. It seems shoe-horned in and provides little entertainment. Don’t get me wrong I’m not adverse to a little bit of torturing in my horror films but it needs to serve a purpose – here it’s just for controversial kicks.

 

I think you can gather where this review has been heading since the start. The Bunnyman Massacre is a lazy effort which assembles some good bits from other films and attempts to stitch them together to make a coherent film without any real idea of how to do it. There’s a lack of pace, a scrimping on gore, too many inconsistencies and illogical decisions and a general sense that the film is directionless and aimless. The blame must lay solely at the feet of the director who tries to punch far above his weight but dramatically fails to land a blow. Where’s Elmer Fudd when you need him to put this bunny menace to sleep?

 

 ★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

*This film was originally just called Bunnyman in the US but was renamed The Bunnyman Massacre for its UK DVD release. The Bunnyman Massacre is the name of the sequel (i.e. Bunnyman 2) in the US but this sequel was renamed The Bunnyman Resurrection in the UK. Don’t ask me, makes no sense!

 

 

Lighthouse (1999)

Lighthouse (1999)

The brightest light hides your darkest fear

A prison transport ship carrying some notorious criminals, including serial killer Leo Rook, runs around during a storm and the crew are forced to abandon ship. The few survivors, a mixture of guards and prisoners, manage to take shelter at a nearby lighthouse but Rook also managed to escape from the ship before it sank. Now with no way off the island, the survivors are slowly picked off one-by-one.

 

A British film with a prolonged production? That’s not something unusual in an era where it seems to be harder and harder for talented British filmmakers to get their foot onto the bottom rung of the movie making ladder. Lighthouse started development in 1994, began shooting in 1998, was eventually finished by 1999, was released in the US in 2000 as Dead of Night, and finally ‘came home’ for the first time in 2002 for a cinematic release. That’s a crazy production schedule so it’s a good job that, for the most, Lighthouse comes out as respectable as it does. Well, as respectable as another generic slasher flick could be.

Lighthouse‘s main strength is its cracking location. The lighthouse and surrounding island is the perfect place to set a horror film. Set at night, the film does a great job of turning this environment into an intimidating, inhospitable place where the only light source is the constantly-rotating lighthouse beam. Inside is no better, with damp, dingy rooms and spiralling staircases leading to all manner of possibilities for the characters to play hide and seek with the killer. At times, director Simon Hunter is in danger of lavishing too much style into the film – this is a slasher after all, not some art house flick. But once this gets a little overbearing, Lighthouse ditches it all in favour of more routine slasher trickery.

It’s these early scenes with the characters exploring the island, blissfully unaware that Rook has beaten them there, which are the film’s strongest point. Before the decapitating gets underway in earnest, Lighthouse protracts the tension with a series of scenes which will get right under your skin: the highlight scene being where the ship’s alcoholic captain ventures off in search of the toilet only to have the killer enter a few minutes later, unaware of the potential victim hiding in the cubicle. What follows is a nerve-wracking few minutes where the captain peeks underneath the cubicle to see a pair of blood-splattered feet pacing up and down.

It’s good to see a British slasher try and deviate from the norm a little by choosing not to populate the film with teenage characters, instead giving us a selection of adult characters to root for (with a bunch of British character actors assuming the roles). Unfortunately just because they’re adults doesn’t mean to say that we’re going to like them any better and Lighthouse seems to go out of its way to make these survivors as bland and as lacklustre as possible. The leads, James Purefoy and Rachel Shelley, are saddled with particularly worthless characters. Thankfully, despite the victims providing little in the way of human entertainment, Christopher Adamson’s Leo Rook killer more than makes up for the short-change. He’s a sinister-looking character, physically imposing to boot, and more than capable (and willing) to kill and decapitate his victims. He likes to keep the heads as trophies. No attempt is made to give him any sort of back story other than the fact he’s a notorious killer but once he escapes, there’s no real need to turn him onto a multi-layered character. He’s a killer, plain and simple, in the classic mould of Michael Myers.

Novelty value of the setting aside, Lighthouse falls into many of the same pitfalls as its American cousins. Once the first couple of kills have taken place, Lighthouse drifts into a repetitive series of “is he there or isn’t he?” moments where the survivors are trying to guess where Rook is hiding. The atmosphere and tension from the first half gives way to predictable plotting, unnecessary explosions and forced romantic sub-plots. The dull characters begin to make silly decisions such as splitting up or venturing outside in the dark. As the number of survivors starts to dwindle and the creativity dries up, Rook begins to grow stronger and stronger, surviving the inevitable electrocution, burning and stabbing that the Final Girl throws his way. No amount of gore and rolling heads can make up for the stupidity and shoulder-shrugging nature of the script in the second half of the film.

 

Lighthouse is a slightly better-than-routine slasher, a bit more violent and gritty than most, set inside a novel location and with some decent technical skill surrounding it. Due to the nature of the material, it is never able to break out in the way that it should and the sub-genre conventions end up swamping the film towards the end. A solid effort from the Brits but nothing that will be rocking the foundations of the sub-genre.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Toolbox Murders, The (2004)

The Toolbox Murders (2004)

Every year, thousands of people come to Los Angeles to pursue their dreams. Some succeed. Some go home. And some just disappear.

The Lusman Arms apartment block used to be the place to stay back in the early days of Hollywood but a series of unfortunate events forced its demise. But now renovations are taking place and residents are moving back in. Nell and her husband, Steven, are a young couple who are getting their feet onto the property ladder and see the block as the ideal place to start their lives together. However when they move in, strange things begin to happen and residents begin to go missing, brutally murdered at the hands of a supernatural killer.

 

Tobe Hooper somewhat returns to his old form with this throwback to the washed-out, gloomy drive-in horror flicks on the late 70s. A loose remake of one of the most infamous ‘video nasties’ during the 80s, The Toolbox Murders sensibly ditches the majority of the original’s story and forges its own path in the process, save for only the murderer’s multi-purpose toolkit. It’s a good job that it does manage to shape its own identity and act as a reminder to horror fans the world over that Tobe Hooper wasn’t just a flash-in-the-pan who brought us The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist but has consistently failed to deliver anything worthwhile since. Hooper needed this more than we needed it but as it turns out, The Toolbox Murders is a nice little compromise. It’s got enough going for it to satisfy genre lovers whilst not really breaking any new ground and Hooper manages to steady himself with a solid film in the hope that he can use it as a springboard to future success.

The Toolbox Murders has the bleak look of an older film, as if it has just been unearthed from a vault which was locked during the late 70s/early 80s. The film is washed out, tinged with a little darkness and purveys an overriding sense of doom throughout. Any thought that this may just be style over substance will be immediately smashed out of your thoughts within the opening few minutes as one unlucky victim falls prey to a pretty horrific claw hammer attack. It’s the sort of gut-punching opening which immediately hooks the viewer in, alerting them to the fact that this isn’t going to be a film for the faint-hearted.

Hooper toys with his audience for the first half of the film, unleashing slasher convention upon convention with the list of victims growing bigger and the methods of dispatch getting crueller and bloodier. For a slasher flick, it isn’t too bad. There’s plenty of uninspired filler but the stalk and kill scenes are shot with a clear eye for detail and atmosphere, and they’re gory (more on that in a bit). The Toolbox Murders, in a post-Scream era of hip, teen horror flicks, seems to be a glorious and defiant stand against the system. The cast isn’t filled with your usual walking, talking teenage clichés. It is made up with a curiously wacky bunch of older odd-bods that includes a voyeur, a failed actress, a sinister handyman and the lazy owner. Angela Bettis, fresh from her creepy but appealing performance in May, stars as Nell and, together with Brent Roam as Steven, they form a likeable husband and wife duo that the audience can get behind and root for. Though Nell does eventually fall into the Final Girl stereotype, Bettis keeps the role multi-dimensional with a few mannerisms and quirks to differentiate her from the crowd. Nell has to piece together what has happened at the apartment using her detective skills which leads to plenty of scenes of her walking around the building. Bettis is one of the most fragile-looking actresses I’ve ever seen and immediately gets your sympathy but the girl can act too so it’s almost impossible not to like her.

Halfway through The Toolbox Murders, Hooper just flips a switch and veers off down the supernatural route, throwing in some really daft plot twists and explanations which serve to confuse everything that has been previously built up. It becomes more of a haunted house film but doesn’t handle the directional change very well at all. Thankfully, even though the final resolution of the mystery is rather poorly-handled, there’s a lot of tension and a couple of decent frights as the killer, known as Coffin Baby, tries to put an end to Nell.

Coffin Baby looks the part of nightmares, sort of a distant cousin of Leatherface complete with a patchwork face. He is quite adept at springing out of practically anywhere in the building, with his first appearance being a right corker, and this adds a constant state of unease to the film. Not only that but he’s a dab hand at using the various implements from his toolbox. If he’s not snapping spinal cords with bolt cutters, he’s slicing off parts of skulls with band saws or using nail guns to utmost horrific effect. The make-up effects department has a field day in bringing these grisly DIY dispatches to life, with a face melting moment to be proud of. It’s no surprise to hear that a lot of these scenes had to be edited down for the limited theatrical release that the film received but thankfully they were included on the DVD version.

 

The Toolbox Murders is fast-paced, slick and delivers a slice of more mature, adult-orientated slash at a time when the teenage audience is getting all of the attention. Hooper doesn’t exactly reinvent the slasher wheel but proves that the sub-genre can still provide decent thrills and spills with the right man behind the camera. Plus Hooper proves that, with the right script, he still has what it takes to make an effective horror film.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆