Serial Psychos box-set

Much credit to Pendulum for bypassing the usual range of public-domain titles – you won’t find Dementia 13 or the omnipresent Night of the Living Dead in any of their box-sets. That doesn’t mean the quality is necessarily any better, of course, but when you’re getting six films for $10 (or less: I’ve seen them for as low as $6.99), there’s no denying the good value they present. Like all their packs, the movies here are a mix of 80’s video titles, and new, independent works; don’t expect any extras or frills, since they’re cramming three titles onto each DVD. And don’t necessarily expect great print quality, especially on the older films, which generally appear to be about VHS level. However, they’re certainly watchable, and I’ve seen far worse “budget” presentations.

The main delight is that a good number of these are obscure films, which in some cases, you won’t find anywhere else on DVD outside these packs. Some are even barely reviewed on the Internet and that’s pretty rare these days. It is slightly irritating to have a couple of the films re-titled for no readily apparent reason. Thirty seconds Googling of the directors and actors reveals the true titles, and this kind of thing smacks of ill-intent; that it doesn’t really make much actual difference (is Slasher that much better a title than Blood Cult?), simply increases the pointlessness of the exercise.

Micro-budget film-makers will learn a lot, even if it’s as much about what not to do as anything – generally, the ideas here are interesting, even if the execution of them is often badly-flawed. Cracking open one of the packs is like a mini-horror festival: you have little or no idea what you’ll get when you slap the DVD into your player. It may be something good; it may not; but either way, when you finish one film, you’ll probably find yourself keen to get on with another one. There’s an undeniable freshness about that, which is more than the sum of the parts, and that’s why the pack overall gets a better rating than any of the films it contains. This sense that you have no idea what’s coming next is quite endearing for a cynical hack like myself, and I’m genuinely looking forward to getting stuck into the next batch.

Blood Cult (1985)

Rating: C

Dir: Christopher Lewis
Star: Charles Ellis, Juli Andelman, James Vance, Bennie Lee McGowan
a.k.a. Slasher

If this was indeed the first “made for the home video market” film, it’s hardly an auspicious start for the medium. Though deserving some credit for boldly going where no movie had gone before, it’s clear that video and, particularly, audio technology have made vast leaps forward since 1985. These particularly wretched aspects are what condemn this more than anything else, since the story and acting are functional; nothing special, but largely adequate to the task at hand. Someone is murdering Oklahoma co-eds, and with elections looming, the local sherriff (Ellis) must find out who; thanks to the killer conveniently leaving talismans at the scene, he suspects a satanic cult. Either that or Dungeons & Dragons fans, I kid you not.

The cast are “homely”, shall we say – either Lewis was deliberately going counter to the Hollywood look of actors and actresses, or perhaps they just breed them for size rather than quality in Tulsa. The daughter and her boyfriend are particularly ugly, though she is not helped by some hideous 80’s hair and fashions. Still, Ellis is kinda endearing, and by the end, I was somewhat attached to his character, especially when it looked as if the film was going to drift into Wicker Man territory. It’s surprisingly restrained, with no nudity, and less blood than I expected – the vast majority of this would be little more than PG-rated these days. Like the first in any area, it’s unquestionably rough around the edges, yet I can’t help grudgingly respecting its pioneer spirit.

Blood Massacre (1991)

Rating: C+

Dir: Donald Dohler
Star: George Stover, Robin London, Richard Ruxton, Anne Frith

This film is one strange beast. After some aimless early meanderings, it effectively starts with a pack of criminals bursting into a remote farmhouse, and holding the residents hostage. Then, it shifts into another gear entirely, as the perps discover they’ve bitten off more than they can chew. But wait! There’s more! It then moves into Rambo territory, because one of the thugs (Stover), a former Vietnam vet, heads for the woods, armed only with some coffee-cans, a circular-saw blade and a selection of explosive chemicals. And just when you thought it couldn’t go any further…there’s one last sea-change in direction that trumps them all. I’m not going to describe it; if you’re anything like me, you’ll be howling at the moon, jaw agape, when it hits.

Just a shame the production values, in most other ways, are less than impressive. Stover appeared in a number of John Waters’ early films, giving you an idea of what to expect, acting-wise, while the limitations in camerawork, direction and overall scripting are painfully and almost permanently obvious. The FX are generally not too bad though, and if you can get past the turgid first-half, it definitely picks up down the stretch – by the end, I was actually sorry to see it finish. Dohler reworked the film as Harvesters in 2001, with Stover now playing the head of the family. That’s not a bad idea, since there’s room for improvement here: the concepts are good, deserving better execution than could be managed on the budgets and skill of the participants at the time. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for Harvesters.

City in Panic (1986)

Rating: C+

Dir: Robert Bouvier
Star: David Adamson, Leeann Nestegard, Ed Chester, Peter Roberts
a.k.a. 13

The print I saw was shorn entirely of cast and credits, and the title radically changed. It conceals a rare-ish Canadian slasher made in 1986, that initially strikes out, with an attempt to recreate the Psycho shower-scene – a wild reach for any director – but picks up in the middle to become somewhat interesting, before descending into the usual slasher nonsense at the end. A serial killer terrorises the city, leaving victims with an ‘M’ carved into them – yes, as well as Hitchcock, they want to invite Fritz Lang comparisons. Late-night radio host Dave Miller (Adamson) is asked to help catch the murderer, by provoking the psycho to call his show. However, as events unfold, the dead bodies get closer to home and it seems that, for his taunts, Miller may become the next target.

Almost a period-piece, this, from back when AIDS – which plays a pivotal role in the plot – was a boogeyman, and the film doesn’t exactly treat it, or the gay community, with much sympathy. It is surprisingly thought-provoking about the role of the media in such cases: how do you inform the public, without causing panic or being crassly exploitative for ratings purposes? Just don’t be fooled. It’s a casual aside, compared to the killings which are the film’s main purpose; the most memorable, a security guard who opts to engage in a spot of glory-holing, and pays a heavy price. It’s all gleefully mean-spirited, but the poor acting derails much of the impact, and you’ll probably guess the killer before half-way. However, Adamson’s resemblance to a young Kevin Bacon is amusing.

Hip Hop Locos (2001)

Rating: D

Dir: Lorenzo Munoz Jr.
Star: Unodoz, J10, Manuel Erives, Aubry Flowers

Unodoz and J10 play two Latino rappers, apparently named “Holmes” and “Esse” – hey, that’s what they call each other every sentence, anyway. They decide to raise money so they can lay down their tracks by robbing and killing various drug-dealers, etc. in a one-night killing spree. It’s shot grainy and hand-held, with the obvious aim of adding authenticity to proceedings. That aspect certainly succeeds, but what writer-director Munoz forgets is that authentic isn’t necessarily interesting. I have little initial desire to listen to a pair of wannabe Hispanic gangsturbators for 70 minutes, and Munoz does nothing to change my prejudices. A couple of scenes held my interest, notably a lengthy, brutal strangulation which was an effective antidote to the clean, quick Hollywood kill. However, Munoz’s attempts to jazz things up with visual, or worse, audio effects distract more than they enhance.

Okay, doubt I fall into the target audience for this – though still thought the minimalist hip-hop beats on the soundtrack were not bad. But any age and ethnic differences are not the problem here; the apparent lack of a proper script, or thought given to character development, background and motives, these issues hurt the film far more. It’s significant that the protagonists’ names are the same as the actors, and again, Munoz seems to confuse “real” with insightful or entertaining. Even “reality” television is much less thrown together than this, and with amateur actors, any director would really struggle. Apart from possibly setting a new record for the use of the word “Fuck” in a movie, it’s difficult to give this one much credit, beyond the “Thanks for coming” level.

I Hate You (2004)

Rating: C-

Dir: Nick Oddo
Star: Marvin W. Schwartz, Bill Santiago

This is a good example of the kind of oddity that would likely receive any significant distribution outside of these box-sets, not least because it’s only 62 minutes long – rather than the 85 claimed on the box. I believe a longer version exists, running 77 minutes, but the editing is probably a good thing, as the idea might seem hard pushed to sustain a full feature. Norman (Schwartz) is an inept comic, vaguely resembling William Burroughs, whose routines are morbid and unfunny. Inspired by Jack the Ripper, he decides instead that becoming a serial killer is his key to fame. Except, nobody notices, his murders being relegated to a minor news footnote. Even as he incorporates his slaughter into his act, it makes no difference – not least because it’s still morbid and unfunny.

Schwartz is a good lead, because he doesn’t look like a killer at all. However, while there’s plenty of potential for black comedy, the lack of development is disappointing. There’s little sense of escalation; Marvin talks about, for example, ordering his audience to kill each other, and that, or even taking revenge on the club owner who bans him from the stage, would have made a satisfactory conclusion. Instead, it just peters out, and you’re not much further forward than you were five minutes in. The film does have something to say about humanity’s fondness for murder, yet how we have become desensitized to it, and this aspect is when things work best. The rest feels too rough and unfinished, and certainly needed more thought put into it, if the aim was to create something as darkly satirical as, say, Man Bites Dog.

Las Vegas Bloodbath (1989)

Rating: D+

Dir: David Schwartz
Star: Ari Levin, Elizabeth Anderson, Barbara Bell, Leah Luchette

If you said this was the worst film ever made, you would get little argument from me. Certainly, the middle 35 minutes, in which the women of Beautiful Ladies Oil Wrestling sit about, try on costumes, play Truth or Dare, watch their own show on TV, and have a nourishing breakfast of beer and donuts(!), could well be the biggest waste of tape in the (already grim) history of shot-on-video horror. However, the finale features a fetus being carved out of a pregnant woman, then hurled against a wall; even if the FX are a little flaky, the mere concept is one of the most appalling things imaginable, made worse by the use of a genuine mother-to-be. Indeed, the enthusiasm with which all the carnage takes place is laudable, and in sharp contrast to the apparently Valium-dosed actors.

The plot in this 1989 roughie, such as it is, has Sam (Levin) catching his wife cheating on him; this kicks off a killing-spree, starting with a prostitute, and ending at the BLOW house-party. Every scene which does not involve wholesale carnage is irredeemably awful; for example, after picking up the hooker, the journey to the love-spot selected by the working-girl apparently takes place in real time. Like a Herschell Gordon Lewis movie, this one exists only for its gore; unlike H.G’s better works, the rest falls through “so bad it’s good” into near-unwatchable. Neither director nor star ever made another movie. I can see why, though Levin could have had a long career as a Seinfeld impersonator – if you ever wanted to see Jerry play with entrails, this one’s for you. The rest of us…probably not so much.