Mental Maniacs box-set

I just sank another six-pack of what you might call the Pabst Blue Ribbon of horror films. Connoisseurs may turn their nose up a bit at the taste, and you do have to be quite hardcore to stomach it – but for the horror fan, this undeniably does the job, at a consumer-friendly price. The title is fairly appropriate for the films contained, and this covers more than thirty years of genre history, from an early-seventies ancestor of the slasher genre, through to a Saw knockoff made in someone’s basement. Most of these, as previously, are unavailable elsewhere – save Matthew. A demerit for that, since it has already appeared in a million other collections, under other names; Scream Bloody Murder in the Chilling Classics 50-pack, for example, or Claw of Terror in the Retromedia four-pack.

The packaging also describes it as made in 1989, sixteen years after the actual production. Though you really have to peer at the back-cover to see this (deliberate?) mistake, since a combination of teeny font, poorly-chosen colour scheme and bad printing make it almost illegible. But a plus is High Desert, a film so obscurist it appears not to exist. At first I thought it was just another name change, since the title has obviously been spliced into the credits, but I couldn’t find in the IMDB, under any title, even checking by director or cast. One increasingly irritating point is the unskippable intro sequence; it takes almost a minute from putting the DVD in to reach the menu, and you can’t do anything about it. Having now sat through it twelve times, it’s definitely getting a bit old.

Overall, this one isn’t quite as good as its predecessor, despite having the best single entry yet, in The Crawlspace. While that’s definitely worth seeing, its presence is outweighed by near-unwatchable dreck like Before I Die or Mayhem Motel, that fail on just about every level. Still, my appetite for these remains largely undiminished, and as before, they still represent exceptional value.

Overall: C

Drawing Blood (2005)

Rating: C-

Dir: Jeffrey + Michael Wolinski
Star: Bryan Irzyk, Jeremy Roach, Robert Z’Dar, Joe Estevez

While for the large part technically competent, and with some actors you’ve heard of in supporting roles, this is mostly very dull. There are too many different threads going on: a man trying to get out of a love triangle; two junkies looking to score their next fix; a pair of nosey next-door neighbours; investigating cops; it barely leaves room for escaped psychopath Jimmy Burns (Roach), seeking revenge on his father. Wisely, his father moved away without telling him – which leaves the new inhabitants of the house in for something of a surprise, shall we say. But it’s unfortunate that the script concentrates on about the least interesting character in the set, George (Irzyk) – though even the film seems to get bored of him, largely drifting off in the middle portion.

It may be this lack of structure that dooms the movie to feeling like a series of incidents, only loosely connected to each other. Some aren’t too bad: the murder Burns committed 15 years earlier is nicely shown, with a car getting destroyed and a couple of crane shots, strikingly at odds with the budget for every other scene. The rest of the money presumably went to Z’Dar, who gives a nice creepy performance as Burns’ father, or Estevez, who shows up twice as the police chief. Their presence is a bit of a double-edged sword, since they draw attention by comparison to the actors who share their scenes. The results are not favourable, shall we say, and the impact overall of this is muted to a significant degree by its poor focus and shortage of invention.

The Crawlspace (2006)

Rating: B-

Dir: Chris Schwartz
Star: Chris Schwartz

This is, very obviously, a shameless rip-off from Saw: our hero (Schwartz) wakes to find himself trapped in a small room, while a largely-unseen, masked psychopath taunts him and forces him to undergo various tests and trials, with freedom as a lure. Despite such a blatant lack of originality, the result works well; it takes the best idea from Saw and runs with this, rather than diluting the concept by trying to expand outside the room, as the inspiration did, with disappointing results. This keeps the claustrophobia dialed up, and also makes the limitations of budget, location and technology seem less obvious, which is always a wise move in microbudget cinema.

It’s not perfect, by any means. Elements of the script don’t ring true, such as the infernal prison actually being inside the hero’s “vacation home”: I doubt he’s old enough to buy alcohol, never mind a second residence. There is also a subplot involving his girlfriend, which doesn’t go anywhere – it could have been excised, but as the film runs only 52 minutes, even including this, I can see why everything but the kitchen-sink was left in. This may also explain the odd tempo, with little sign of how much time has passed – this results in the hero apparently going from regaining consciousness to near-hysteria in about five minutes, far too quickly to be effective. Still, the main strength is an interesting script which has had some thought put into it. For what is basically a one-man piece of work, it’s a credible effort, and I’m prepared to cut Schwartz slack for his plagiarism – just this once.

Before I Die (2003)

Rating: D-

Dir: Joel D. Wynkoop, Dave Castiglione, Dawn Murphy
Star: M. Catherine Holseybrook, David Lee, Dawn Murphy, Nancy Feliciano

This is an anthology story, using a writer, struggling to come up with ideas, to tie together the three parts. Unfortunately, they are badly-written, poorly-acted and laughably-inept on just about every level. The first story, Time for Dessert sets the bar low, with a man becoming obsessed by a fat woman (Holseybrook); when he finally achieves his goal, he discovers her nasty secret. This is portrayed with such wretched awfulness (let’s just say, large pipe-cleaners appear to be involved), it provides the sole redeeming moment in the entire film, and this does at least have some amusing scenery-chewing.

Unfortunately, things then sink into utter tedium with Last Resort, where a couple (Lee + Murphy) go on honeymoon to a resort where they appear to be the only inhabitants. It takes them three days to decide to leave, and believe me when I say this appears to have been filmed in real time. You’ll have plenty of time to wonder about things like, “What do they eat – grass?” But right from the get-go, this is obviously the painful stretching of an idea that never received anything like sufficient development. It’s the longest of the three stories, and certainly feels like it, despite having the least actual content. Things are not helped by the lengthy, frequent scenes of PG-rated bonking that litter the story.

Finally, we get Someone is Sleeping in my Bed, about a murder-spree carried out by an escaped mental patient – the twist here being the crossover between the writer’s imagination and reality. This stars Nancy Feliciano as both victim and the author’s other half, and she does seem to enjoy wandering round her apartment unclothed. Again, however, there’s just too little going on otherwise to justify the story’s existence, and it’s something of a blessed relief when we’re back to the writer jabbering away to himself – which is what passes for exposition in this stinker. The vast majority of the time was spent using the split-screen on my TV, and let’s say that without Game 7 of the Mets-Cardinals series, this would have been a very long 84 minutes.

Mayhem Motel (2001)

Rating: D-

Dir: Karl Kempter
Star: Matthew Biancaniello, Sara Berkowitz, Lorene Scafaria, Ray Jarrell

This sits uneasily in the collection, but I guess Pendulum don’t have one called Wacked-out Weirdos, because that’s what this really demands. It’s centered on a motel, and the…unusual, shall we say, inhabitants, over the course of one night. Most of them seem to be seeking sex of one kind or another – and it’s rarely the straightforward vanilla kind. There’s a businessman who is getting his genitals shaved by a (very poor) Marilyn Monroe lookalike, who refuses to sing him Happy Birthday; a pimp who uses a megaphone to speak into his cellphone. Oh, and the film starts off with a guy climbing into a bathtub and vomiting. For real.

The most obvious influence is the early work of John Waters, but Kempter manages to omit anything that would actually cause viewers to give a damn about these characters. There is little or no structure, sense of progression or even storyline to act as a thread from which interest can be sustained, and the individual scenes are mostly dull as ditchwater. I think my patience finally evaporated during the discussion between a pair of guys, explaining things like a donkey punch or Dirty Sanchez. The only people who might confuse this with cutting-edge cinema are teenage boys, though some credit is due Kempter for shooting this on 16mm rather than video. The print seems to have more than its share of audio-dropouts too; however, by the end, you’ll probably find yourself looking forward to these, as preferable to the dialogue.

High Desert (1993)

Rating: C

Dir: Charles T. Lang
Star: Edward B. Glinski, Tyleen Roberts, Ron Jason, Alice Davidson

As noted in the introduction, this is a real obscurity, without an entry in the IMDB. Lang does appear, as directing Soul of the Demon, but as for the cast… Jason may have been in a couple of other video cheapies, but there’s nothing at all for Glinski, Roberts or Davidson, making it unlikely this is there under a different name. [2018 update: a page now exists, and it’s not clear if it’s the same Charles Lang or not] Hardly counts as an undiscovered classic though: it’s a simple tale of three campers, one of whom (Davidson) pissed off a biker (Glinski) in her day job at a bar. Said biker – and, to a lesser extent, his gang – are now out for revenge, in the remote woods where our trio have gone for a weekend trip.

Technically, it’s about what you’d expect for a 1994 (approx – the copyright date is almost unreadable on the credits) video movie; occasionally flaky sound, but you get used to that, and it’s the story that’s more problematic. This could go in a number of directions, especially when we learn that two of the bikers – one good, one bad – are Vietnam vets. I was looking forward to Rambo vs. Rambo, maybe, as the two groups faced off against each other. Or even something nicely revenge-based would have been acceptable. Instead, this takes such a long time meandering through the forest, that the final confrontation takes, in its entirety, slightly more than five minutes. It’s not badly-handled, though relies too heavily on bullets which go conveniently astray; a poor payoff, that’s a damp squib more than an explosive climax.

Scream Bloody Murder (1973)

Rating: C+

Dir: Marc B. Ray
Star: Fred Holbert, Leigh Mitchell, Robert Knox, Ron Bastone
a.k.a. Matthew, Claw of Terror and The Captive Female

Young Matthew (Holbert) runs his father over with a farm machinery, but ends up losing his hand to the same piece of equipment, and is sent off to grow up in a mental hospital. He comes back to find his mother has just remarried; while you think he’d welcome an alternative father-figure, the new one rapidly gets axed by Matthew, now sporting a hook. His understandably freaked mother (Mitchell) falls over, smashing her brains out on a convenient rock. Matthew hits the road, killing a newly-married couple, before finding a hooker, Vera, who reminds him of his mother – she’s also played by Mitchell. He “befriends” her, but starts killing off her patrons, and to impress Vera also takes over a large house, by the simple means of killing all the inhabitants. When she still asserts her independence, he kidnaps her and ties her up in the house. Can she escape his loony grasp?

While clearly daft as a brush, this is not without charm, and goes about its business with energy, as exemplified by Matthew’s rant at Vera: “I get groceries and clothes and art stuff and kill people. And do you appreciate it? No. N-O.” It’s also interesting how he is simultaneously fascinated and terrified by sex, and this eventually proves his downfall. Keep an eye out for a young Angus Scrimm, pre-Phantasm, as a doctor suspicious of Matthew, who may or may not meet a grisly fate. [Oh, who am I trying to kid?] The print here is not in good condition, and looks to be the cut version seen elsewhere, albeit with a new intro and title badly spliced-on, claiming it to be ‘Splatter Cinema Presents A Horroscope [sic] Production’. That aside, this was entertaining enough, and I didn’t have to rewind it because I dozed off – more than can be said for some films in this pack