The TSL’s Grindhouse: Final Exam (dir by Jimmy Huston)

The 1981 slasher film, Final Exam, opens with a familiar scene.  A couple is making out in a car.  A man (played by Timothy L. Raynor) comes along and kills them both.

Why does the man do this?  Is he an escaped mental patient, like the killer who always appear in the urban legend about the man with the hook?  Is he an angry father, upset that students have been parking near his farm and corrupting his children with their sinful ways?  Is he an occultist, hoping that a blood sacrifice will bring about the end of the world?  Is he a jilted lover or an unemployed day laborer or a zombie or an international assassin or a former fat boy looking for vengeance on the students who pulled the prank that caused him to drop out of college?  Seriously, what is this guy’s deal!?

We never find out.  That, in itself, makes Final Exam unique.  The Killer is not only not given a motive, he’s not even given a name!  He’s just someone who shows up and starts killing.  No one knows him and he doesn’t appear to know anyone that he kills.  The fact that he’s so anonymous is actually a factor in the film’s favor.  The flamboyant motivations that are given to most slasher villains tend to serve as a distancing device for the audience.  It’s easy, for instance, to dismiss Jason Voorhees because we know that the idea of him drowning and then somehow showing up in the woods just doesn’t make any sense.  The convoluted backstory of Michael Myers (or at least the Myers who was present in the original, pre-reboot Halloween films) eventually became so ludicrous that it made it easier for audiences to say, “Well, it’s just a move.”  Final Exam‘s motiveless killer is actually far more true to life.  In real life, it’s rare that we ever learn the motives behind the crimes.  By making the Killer anonymous, Final Exam takes away one of the tools that the audience can use to assure themselves that it’s only a movie.

Unfortunately, the scenes following the opening murder are so inept that the audience is instantly reminded that they’re just watching a movie and not a particularly well-made one at that.  It’s final exam time on campus but several students aren’t ready to take their Chemistry exam.  So, a fraternity fakes a shooting spree — yes, you read that correctly — and manages to get the exam delayed for a day.  That means that, while all of the other students have gone home, the chemistry students stay on campus so that they can study for their final exam.  And, of course, the killer is on his way to the campus as well….

While the killer makes his way to campus, we sit through several scenes of campus hijinks.  It’s a weird mix of horror and comedy.  We meet a few students who are obviously destined to victims.  Neurotic Radish (Joel S. Rice) is likably nerdy.  Lisa (DeAnna Robbins) is having an affair with one of her professors, but at least she has a great first name.  The frat boys are doing steroids and tying each other to trees.  Apparently, spending the night tied to a tree is some sort of initiation ritual.  That’s not a good situation to find yourself in when there’s a killer stalking the surrounding area.

Yes, the killer does eventually arrive on campus but it seems to take him forever.  Once he does arrive, he starts killing everyone that he meets and, again, his lack of motivation makes him far more disturbing and frightening than he has any right to be.  It really is the ultimate nightmare.  Not only is someone trying to kill you but he’s doing it just because.  There’s no reason for his actions and therefore, there’s no way to talk him out of it.  There’s no secret to distracting or stopping him.  You just have to run and hope you can escape.  Cecile Bugdadi plays Courtney, who is pretty obviously destined to be the final girl.  She gives a good performance and you definitely want her to escape but again, the film is so poorly paced that, by the time she gets her chance to face the Killer, the majority of the audience will probably have checked out, either mentally or physically.

Final Exam has a cult following, which I kind of understand.  It really is the epitome of what people imagine when they imagine a typical, low-budget, early 80s slasher film.  It represents an era.  But for me, it’s just too uneven to work.

Horror On TV: Friday the 13th: The Series 1.12 “Faith Healer” (dir by David Cronenberg)

Tonight’s episode of Friday the 13th is all about fake faith healers but, even more importantly, it was directd by none other than David Cronenberg!

Be sure to keep an eye out for Robert Silverman, a Cronenberg regular who had important roles in The Brood and Scanners and who has appeared in a host of other Cronenberg films over the years.  He also appeared in Prom Night, playing the creepy janitor who is briefly used as a red herring before the identity of the real murdere is revealed.

This episode originally aired on February 13th, 1988.  (Originally, I got excited when I saw that date but, checking with a calendar, I saw that this show aired on a Saturday the 13th and not an actual Friday the 13th.)  Unfortunately, due to budget cuts after the show’s first season, Cronenberg would be Friday the 13th‘s last celebrity director.

(Cronenberg would, however, go on to appear in Jason X.)

International Horror Review: La Llorona (dir by Jayro Bustamante)

Enrique Monteverde (Jose Diaz) lives in a mansion in Guatemala.  He’s an old man, one who look harmless on first glance.  He always has an Oxygen tank nearby.  His family says that he’s suffering from Alzheimer’s and, therefore, can’t always be held responsible for some of the things that he might say.  He shamelessly leers at the younger woman who work in his home.  His family says that he’s always been a flirt but he doesn’t mean any harm or offense.  His family insists that he’s just an old man with dementia who is hoping to pass away peacefully while surrounded by his loved ones.

The protestors who gather daily outside of Enrique’s mansion have a different opinion of the man.  They chant and hold up signs illustrated with the faces of their missing relatives.  Before he retired, Enrique was a general.  He fought the communist guerillas.  Previously, he was convicted of committing genocide against the indigenous people of Guatemala but his conviction was overturned by a higher court.  There are other retired generals who know that, if Enrique had gone to prison, it would not have been long until they followed him.  Just because people are going on trial and even getting convicted, that’s not guarantee of justice.

Enrique’s wife, Carmen (Margarita Kenefic)m insists that Enrique is innocent and that all of his accusers are lying.  Enrique’s daughter, Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz), is less sure while his granddaughter, Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado), just thinks of Enrique as being her somewhat goofy grandfather.  Meanwhile, his housekeeper, Valeriana (Maria Telon), remains strangely devoted to him.  Even after a scared and confused Enrique fires a gun in the house because he swears he heard someone moving in the darkness, Valeriana stays.  The rest of the household staff quits.  Alma (María Mercedes Coroy), a young woman from Valeriana’s village, comes to the home to work as a maid.

Enrique continues to insist that some sort of curse has been placed over the mansion and that something evil has entered the house.  Is he just suffering, as his family assumes, from dementia or is he correct?  Even as the protests continue outside and the enigmatic Alma hints that she has a secret of her own, Carmen finds herself haunted by nightmares and visions of her husband’s crimes.

La Llorona is a film that combines two horrors, one legendary and one very real.  There is, of course, the legend of the weeping woman.  She is said to haunt the night, crying for her drowned children and, in some cases, killing anyone who tries to help her.  And there’s the very real horror of the war crimes that were committed, by various military dictatorships, against the indigenous people of Central and South America.  Though Enrique may be a fictional creation, the crimes that he and others committed were not.  La Llorona is more than just a haunted house story.  It’s a film about the crimes of the past and how those crimes continue to haunt the present.  Like many prominent men, Enrique is protected not by the loyalty of those he worked with but instead by the knowledge that the minute one guilty war criminal actually pays for his crimes, they’ll all end of paying.  The political and legal establishment will do what it has to do to protect itself by protecting men like Enrique.  But, as this film demonstrates, the sins of the past cannot be escaped in present.

Unfortunately, the premise is a bit more interesting than the execution.  The film’s deliberate pacing often lends La Llorona a dream-like feel but, in other scenes, the film just feels slow.  The idea of the legendary weeping woman acting as a sort of vigiliante is an interesting one but the story itself is a bit predictable.  That said, the cast all give strong and memorable performances and the film uses the horror genre to discuss disturbing truths that many would rather ignore.  Flawed or not, La Llorona is a good example of how the horror genre can be used to comment on the past and the present.

La Llorna was a Guatemala’s submission for the 2020 Oscar for Best International Film.  Though it deserved a nomination for ambition alone, it didn’t make it beyond the 15-film shortlist.  Fortunately, nominated or not, the film can currently be viewed on Shudder.

Horror Film Review: Silent Hill (dir by Christophe Gans)

Oh, Silent Hill.

I first saw this movie way back in 2006, when it was first released into theaters.  At the time, I knew nothing about Silent Hill, beyond the fact that it was based on a video game that a lot of my friends seemed to like.  I have to admit that I had a really hard time following the plot and yet the film still totally creeped me out.  The film was one of those movies that created such an atmosphere of impending doom that the real world looked and felt different when I left the theater.  For the rest of that night, I found myself feeling paranoid about any sudden shadows.

I’ve watched Silent Hill or, at the very least, parts of Silent Hill a few more times over the years.  The plot still makes little sense to me, though I am now a bit more familiar with the game that inspired the film.  Over the years, a handful of the special effects have aged a bit poorly, with many of the once-fearsome monsters now looking somewhat cartoonish.  And yet, when the film works, it really, really works. There are certain scenes in this film that still surprise and frighten me, even though I’ve already seen them.  One character, for instance, is burned alive and I still have to look away when the fire consumes them.  The thing is that, even if the CGI now looks a bit cartoonish, the atmosphere remains.  That feeling dread continues to snake its way through every scene in the film and into the consciousness of the viewer.

I rewatched the film earlier today.  I’m feeling nervous tonight.  Maybe it’s just because I’ve got a lot of writing to do and we’ve got some home repair people coming by tomorrow to do some work.  Or maybe, it’s because I’m worried that I’m suddenly going to find myself in some sort of shadow world, being menaced by blind but stabby nurses.

The film opens with Rose (Radha Mitchell) and her husband, Christopher (Sean Bean) trying to figure out why their adopted daughter, Sharon (Jodelle Ferland), is sleepwalking and having nightmares about a town called Silent Hill.  Silent Hill is in West Virginia and was abandoned after a mysterious natural disaster.  Rose decides that visiting the town is the best way to solve the mystery.  However, after an automobile accident, Sharon disappears and Rose finds herself wandering around the town and getting attacked by monsters and occultists.  Meanwhile, Christopher is also wandering around Silent Hill, accompanied by a helpful deputy (Kim Coates), but it’s hard not to notice that his Silent Hill seems to be signifcantly difficult from the Silent Hill that Sharon and motorcycle police officer Cybil (Laurie Holden) have found themselves in.

It’s a confusing plot but director Christopher Gans does such a good job of creating and maintaining the film’s creepy atmosphere that it doesn’t matter that you’re not always sure what’s going on.  And while it’s true that there’s perhaps too many scenes of Sharon walking from place to place, there’s also some truly frightening scenes, like the one with all of those killer nurses.  The film plays out like a dream and, as we all know, you don’t question dream logic.  Instead, you just go with it.

And so, 15 years after the film was first released, I’m usually willing to just go with Silent Hill.  I’m at peace with never quite understanding it.  Instead, I appreciate it for what it is: a creepy and surreal experience that will make you think twice before stepping out into the fog.

Sledgehammer (1983, directed by David A. Prior)

Long ago, an adulterous couple was beaten to death by someone weilding a sledgehammer while one of the victm’s 8 year-old son watched.  Ten years later, a bunch of stupid college kids decide that the farmhouse would be a great place to throw a party.  Great idea!  After a lot of filler, including a length foodfight, one of the partiers tells the story of the murder and then suggests holding a seance so that they can talk to “ghosts and goblins.”  Everyone agrees.  At first, it seems like the seance is just an extended practical joke but soon, a killer with a sledgehammer shows up.

Sledgehammer was an early direct-to-video slasher film.  It was directed by David A. Prior, who later went on to become one of the buseist DTV directors of the 80s and 90s.  Starring in the film was Ted Prior, brother of David.  Ted plays Chuck, who is not sure whether or not he wants to marry his fiancee, Joni (Linda McGill).  There’s a scene where Chuck and Joni walk through a fied in slow motion.  It adds nothing to the plot but it did add to the running time, which I imagine was the intent.  There are, in fact, several slow motion sequences in the film.  There’s so much slow motion that it’s hard not to laugh whenever the frames start to slow down.  It’s an 87 minute film but it feels like at least 20 minutes of that is due to the slow motion.

Sledgehammer is slow and dumb but it’s hard to really dislike it.  The cast may be amateurish but they also appear to be having a good time and the decision to film almost the entire movie in what was then David Prior’s apartment is actually likable in a low-rent, anyone-can-make-a-movie way.  The opening credits are written in generic 80s computer font and the movie ends with a lengthy “You have been watching” style montage of the cast.  It’s like bad 80s synthesizer music, cheesy but impossible to hate.  As for the killer, he’s stuck wearing a cheap mask but the sledgehammer is a good weapon and it actually makes him more threatening than many of his knife and axe wielding comrades.

Sledgehammer is not great.  It’s not even the best thing from the 80s to be called Sledgehammer.  (David Rasche rules!)  But it’s better than many other direct-to-video slashers.  What it lacks in creativity, it maes up for with ethusiasm.

Game Review: AardVarK Versus The Hype (2021, Truthcraze)

AardVarK versus The Hype is an entrant in the 2021 Interactive Fiction Competition.  All of the entries can be browsed and experienced here.

This year is 1997 and the students at the local high school have been transformed into blood-coughing, murderous zombies by the Hype, a new soft drink.  It’s up to the members of the world’s great garage band, AardVarK, to defeat the Hype but doing so is going to involve solving some puzzles and spendng a lot of time at a convenience store.

This is an intentionally strange game and it takes a while to get used to the format but I dug it.  There are four members of AardVarK and, throughout the game, you switch back and forth from which member of the band you’re playing.  Sometimes, it can be difficult to keep track of which band member you are but I still appreciated the game’s ambition.  This might be the first true enemble Interactive Fiction game that I’ve ever played.

The story is full of goofy, self-referential humor.  Imagine if Kevin Smith wrote an IF game and you might have some idea of this game’s skewed perspective.  It’s a fun game, though, full of odd dialogue and strange scenes.  Some of the puzzles do have weird, out-there solutions but fortunately, the game comes with a HINT section that will help you out.  The best thing to do with a game like this is to just type whatever pops into your head and see what happens.  The joy here is from the journey and seeing just how weird things can get!

Play AardVark Versus The Hype.

Horror Scenes that I Love: The Devil Eats A Soul in L’Inferno (dir by Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, and Giuseppe De Liguoro)

Today’s horror scene that I love comes from the 1911 film, L’Inferno. This silent film is not only considered to be the first Italian feature film but it was also the first Italian horror film. Based on Dante’s Divine Comedy, the film took three years to make and was a hit with audiences. It made two million at the box office, an unheard of amount of money in 1911.

In this scene, Dante and Virgil observe the devil eating a sinner’s soul.

“East Hell”, Review by Case Wright

Finally, I get to watch a good short. I will not lead you astray. This short is worth your time. I promise. It goes for comedy and achieves it. A short is successful if you care about the story and characters and get an emotional response in a brief period of time. Really, that is a tremendous achievement. It has a mean girl (well, mean girl demon), two aspiring devil worshippers, and a neglected boy who needs a sitter.

The two girls summon a demon and she appears and it’s awesome!!! The girls are all goth and the Demon is too cool for school-Brooklyn-hipster-badass.

The demon starts savaging them, “You’d be really pretty if it weren’t for your clothes and face and house”. This is fun because demons are usually scary, slick, or sexy, but that’s usually only the purview of male demons. It was fun dark girl power. I felt like I was back in the City and it’s nice to know that these people still exist in my absence.

After the demon is summoned, she’s takes a liking to the real underdog and the story becomes a quasi-revenge story. I really to hope to see Lauren Cipoletti (The Demon) more. She has great comic timing and we need more of her!

When a short is done well, it’s great!

Horror Book Review: Switched by R.L. Stine

Oh hell yeah!

Dear readers, I present to you perhaps the greatest book ever written by the one and only R.L. Stine!

Now, I’m not going to spoil too much of this plot because, seriously, this book is crazy. Once the plot twists start, they never stop. Once the first two dead bodies show up, it’s a nonstop parade of bloody corpses. People don’t just die in this book. They get their heads ripped off and then they sometimes show up alive a few pages later. That’s the type of book this is. First published back in 1996, Switched is like the ultimate Fear Street book.

Basically, Nicole is having a really bad day. Her parents are being totally overprotective. Her boyfriend wants to dump her because he says that she’s too much too handle, even though Nicole can’t imagine what he means by that. (Don’t worry, Nicole! I’ve been there!) She didn’t do her class project because she just didn’t feel like it. Nicole’s obviously suffering from a case of terrible ennui.

However, her friend Lucy has a solution! Lucy says that there’s a wall near the cemetery and basically, all you have to do is climb the wall with someone else and then jump off the wall while holding that person’s hand and then — BOOM! — it’s body switch time! Lucy says that they can switch bodies and Nicole can get a chance to live Lucy’s perfect life and maybe make out with Lucy’s boyfriend. Nicole says sure!

So, they jump off the wall and, quicker than you can say Freaky Friday, it works! Unfortunately, no sooner has the body switch occurred than Nicole starts to find dead bodies all over the place! Could Lucy be killing them while using Nicole’s body!? Or is something even stranger happening?

Seriously, this book is a lot of fun. Not only do you get the totally insane body switch plot and a lot of gore and impure thoughts but you also get nonstop twists. And, as opposed to certain other Stine books, the twists all make a strange sort of sense in Switched! I won’t say much else about Switched because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone but, if you ever feel the need to prove that R.L. Stine could tell a good story and keep the reader guessing, Switched is the book to go with!

Book Review: The Legend of the Planet of the Apes: Or How Hollywood Turned Darwin Upside Down by Brian Pendreigh

Recently, while going through all the books that I’ve collected over the years, I came across a copy of The Legend of Planet of the Apes: Or How Hollywood Turned Darwin Upside Down.  It’s a book by a Scottish film critic named Brian Pendreigh and it takes a look at the Planet of the Apes film franchise, from the 1968 original all the way to Tim Burton’s now-forgotten remake.  Though I couldn’t find a copyright date in the book, it was obviously written long before the Planet of the Apes franchise was rebooted and sent in an entirely new direction by 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

That’s okay, though.  The three recent Planet of the Apes films all had moments of brilliance and Andy Serkis probably deserved an Oscar nomination for his performances in all three of them but they have also tended to overshadow the original Planet of the Apes and its sequels and, as this book points out, the first 5 films were actually pretty good.  (Okay, okay — Battle of the Planet of the Apes isn’t great, even if it is entertaining.  But I defy you not to cry at the end of Escape From The Planet of the ApesBeneath the Planet of the Apes is wonderfully subversive with its abrupt and nihilistic ending.  Conquest of the Battle of the Apes is probably even more relevant today than it was in the 70s.)  While the majority of Pendreigh’s book focuses on the production of the original Planet of the Apes, he writes enough about both its sequels and the short-lived Planet of the Apes television show to make a convincing argument that the original franchise itself deserves to be held in higher regard than it often is.

It’s a good book, though I do wish Pendreigh had been a little bit less obvious in his loathing of Charlton Heston.  Certain writers will never forgive Heston for not being a liberal.  Heston, of course, was hardly the only Republican to be a star during the 50s and the 60s.  John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper, James Cagney (from the 50s onward), Robert Mitchum, and many others leaned to the right.  However, John Wayne, Gary Coper, Robert Mitchum, and even Jimmy Stewart were largely associated with westerns and war films, two genres that were already considered to be thematically conservative.  Heston, on the other hand, appeared in left-wing dystopian sci-films like Soylent Green, The Omega Man, and Planet of the Apes.  While other Hollywood conservatives were supporting the blacklist, Heston fought to get Orson Welles hired to direct Touch of Evil.  He appeared in film that were critical of capitalism and blind patriotism and fanatical militarism.  He did everything that a left-wing actor was supposed to do but he did it while voting Republican and a lot of film writers will never forgive him for it.  As a result, people far too often tend to act as if Heston’s films were good despite Heston when, in all actuality, Heston’s macho persona and his willingness to subvert it (or at the very least, his willingness to allow his directors to subvert it) is what made so many of his film memorable and important in the first place.  One reason why the endings of both Planet of the Apes and Beneath the Planet of the Apes continue to resonate after all these years is because they featured Charlton Heston, rendered helpless and driven mad.

Admittedly, when it comes to dismissing Heston, Pendreigh is not as bad as some.  He acknowledges the importance of Heston’s performance to the success of the original Planet of the Apes.  And yet, he can’t resist complaining about Heston’s later political activities or his admittedly pompous view of himself.  Anytime an actor is quoted as saying something good about Heston, Pendreigh is sure to also include a quote from someone saying something negative.  It’s a distraction that takes away from discussing the films.  One gets the feeling that the author was deeply troubled by the fact that praising Planet of the Apes would require him to also offer up some praise for the film’s star.

But …. no matter!  Regardless of however he felt about Charlton Heston, Brian Pendreich clearly appreciated the Planet of the Apes films and that genuine appreciation comes through in this book.  In fascinating and rewarding detail, it explores the controversy of who, among the many people who worked on developing the film, deserves the credit for coming up with the original’s classic final scene.  It examines the circumstances that led to Edward G. Robinson leaving the role of Dr. Zaius.  It takes a look at the career of Pierre Boulle, who wrote the somewhat forgotten novel that led to the films in the first place.  And it provides a fair look at what worked (and occasionally didn’t work) about the film’s sequels.

If you’re a fan of the original and its sequels, this book is a must-have.