Dream On: After Midnight (1989, directed by Jim and Ken Wheat)


Prof. Edward Derek (Ramy Zada) teaches a class called The Psychology Of Fear.  He claims that the things that most scare us are the things that we can believe in.  (To quote the observers from the peanut gallery, “No shit, Sherlock.”)  After Prof. Derek demonstrates fear by pulling out a fake gun and pretending to kill himself, a jock ends up pissing himself and the class is suspended.  Fortunately, Prof. Derek has a backup plan.  He invites his students to his house, where he tells them three horror stories that are all designed to prove that the scariest things are the things that could actually happen in real life.

What does Prof. Derek believe to be scary?

In the first story, it’s scary when your wife decides that the perfect way to throw a surprise party would be to trick you into thinking that you’re trapped in a haunted house and you’re going to die if you don’t start chopping off some heads.

In the second story, it’s scary when a group of girls take a wrong turn, piss off the wrong gas station attendant, and end up getting chased by pack of killer dogs.

In the third story, it’s scary with an answering service operator (played by a pre-CSI Marg Helgenberger) starts getting calls from a psycho.

None of the three stories are really that scary but the first story does have a twist ending that would have made EC Comics proud.  The third story is the best, if just because it focuses on one character and that character is played by Marg Helgenberger.  There’s also the wrap-around story involving the professor and his students.  Just when that story’s getting good, it cops out with an ending that you’ll see coming from a mile away.

With the exception of Marg Helgenberger’s segment, After Midnight is a largely forgettable horror anthology film that will be best appreciated by viewers who are nostalgic for 80s fashion and cheap special effects.

A Movie A Day #132: American Ninja (1985, directed by Sam Firstenberg)


Hell yeah!

From Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan, the duo who were responsible for producing the coolest films of the 1980s, comes American Ninja!

Private Joe Armstrong (Michael Dudikoff) is the newest arrival on an American army base in the Philippines.  A former member of a street gang, he has been forced to enlist in the army in order to keep himself out of jail.  Because he keeps to himself, the other soldiers do not like him.  Colonel Hickock (Guich Kook) is angry that his daughter, Patricia (Judie Aronson), likes Joe and conspires to have Joe court martialed.  Joe’s only friend is Corporal Jackson (Steve James), who starts out as an enemy but changes his ways after Joe shows off some sweet martial arts moves.  Because Joe is an amnesiac, he does not know where or why he learned how to fight.  He just knows that he can.

It’s good that he can because the local black marketer, Ortega (Don Stewart) has hired the legendary Black Star ninjas to help him steal supplies from the base.  Ortega has even allowed the ninjas to set up a training camp in his back yard.  When Joe prevents the ninjas from kidnapping Patricia, the ninjas swear revenge.

As if there could possibly be any doubt, American Ninja was made and distributed by Cannon Films.  It is about as pure an example of the Cannon aesthetic as anyone could hope to find.  Find a star — in this case, Michael Dudikoff — who was credible without being expensive.  Give him a love interest who was easy on the eyes and who could get held hostage during the film’s climax.  Toss in slow motion stunt work, big explosions, and Steve James.  Come up with a title that would appeal to both NASCAR-loving patriots and drive-in movie fans.  End result: American Ninja!

As a film, American Ninja get the job done and then some.  The fights are well-choreographed and the movie does not allow things like character development or subtext to get in the way of showcasing plenty of ninja action.  There are enough weird details, especially after Joe dons the black pajamas of the American Ninja, to keep the move interesting.  At one point, a ninja literally vanishes and what’s cool is that no one acts surprised when it happens.  Long before Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, American Ninja showed that there’s nothing a ninja can’t do!

One final note: Keep an eye out for my favorite scene, in which a slow-moving jeep bumps into a tree and explodes with all the force of a planet that’s just been zapped by the Death Star.

Film Review: Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (dir. by Joseph Zito)


(spoilers below)

Today, continuing our look at the Friday the 13th horror franchise, we consider the misnamed Friday the 13th — The Final ChapterOriginally released in 1984, this film apparently was really sold as being the final chapter and Tom Savini even returned to do the gore effects because, supposedly, he wanted to kill off his most famous creation.  To be honest, that all sounds like a lot of hype and hucksterism to me but, regardless of the title’s insincerity, The Final Chapter is one of the best (some would say the best) installments in the series.

The Final Chapter begins less than an hour after the end of Part 3.  (One of the curious things about the Friday the 13th series is that the 2nd, 3rd, and fourth films all occur during the same long weekend.  It never seems to disturb anyone in the 3rd or 4th film that a bunch of people have just been murdered in the same general area.)  Jason, who was killed by the terrible Chris Higgins at the end of Part 3, is taken down to the county morgue where he promptly turns out to not be dead after all.  He kills a nurse and an orderly and then, instead of continuing to seek vengeance on Chris (with whom he was pretty much obsessed in Part 3) , he decides to go kill a whole bunch of other people who have just shown up at Crystal Lake for the weekend. 

Those other people are a group of dorky but rather likable college students who have rented a house on the lake.  This is probably the most quirky group of vacationers ever to come to Crystal Lake and it’s a credit to an unusually strong (and unsung) ensemble cast that you actually do believe that these people are friends.  In the group, we have Doug (a dreamy Peter Barton), shy virgin Sarah (Barbara Howard, who is so believable as a nice girl that I felt bad for her when she died), Paul (Alan Hayes), Paul’s slutty girlfriend Samantha (Judie Aronson), and finally heterosexual life partners Jimmy (Crispin Glover) and Ted (Lawrence Monoson).  Jimmy and Ted provide the film with its “comic relief,” the majority of which is pretty weak but Crispin Glover gives such an odd performance that he’s enjoyable nonetheless.  Eventually, our vacationers meet two twins, Tina and Terri (Camilla and Carey Moore) and then they all go back to the house to watch old nudie films and Crispin Glover does a hilariously spastic dance before losing his virginity to one of the twins.  (“Was I a dead fuck?” he asks after, with an aching sincerity.)  And then Sarah gets ready to lose her virginity to Doug but then that defender of purity, Jason (played here by Ted White), pops up and kills everyone.  Seriously, Jason had a busy weekend.

Unfortunately for Jason, Trish Jarvis (Kimberly Beck) and her little brother Tommy (Corey Feldman, who gives a pretty good performance here even if Tommy is kind of a brat when you get right down to it), happen to live next door.  Trish is prepared for Jason because she has previously met yet another camper — Rob (Erich Anderson),who specifically came up to Crystal Lake to track down and kill Jason because Jason killed his sister Sandra in Part 2.  (Of course, by the series chronology, Sandra only died two days ago so I guess Rob moves pretty quickly.)  Also unfortunate for Jason, Tommy is an aspiring makeup artist who makes himself up to look like Jason and, in the surprisingly exciting finale, uses his skills to fool Jason and then hack him up while screaming, “DIE!” all the while.

Plotwise, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter is a pretty standard slasher film and, at times, it asks the audience to suspend its disbelief just a little bit too much.  Whenever I see the scene where Tina is pulled out the second story window, I always find myself wondering 1) how Jason managed to climb up the side of the house in the rain, 2) why did he decide to do that when, in the previous scene, he was already inside the house, and 3) why didn’t anyone inside the house hear Tina crashing into the station wagon below.  And yet, despite this, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter is considered by many (including me) to be the best of the series. 

To me, this film succeeds because of two men — Joseph Zito and Tom Savini.    Whereas later Friday the 13th directors often times seemed to be ashamed of the films they were making, Zito was an exploitation vet who had already directed one of the most brutal slashers of all time, The Prowler.  As a director, Zito specialized in telling simple stories as brutally and efficiently as possible.  That’s certainly what he does here and the end result is a fast-paced Friday the 13th that — as opposed to Part 3 — didn’t suffer from any excessive filler.  As well, Zito also does a good job in framing and executing the film’s many tracking and p.o.v. shots, continually keeping the audience off-balance as to whether we’re seeing the camera’s point-of-view or Jason’s. Meanwhile, Tom Savini’s gore effects are just as realistic and disturbing as in the first film.  This is an undeniably bloody film that, at the same time, never slips into tedious “torture porn,” and both Zito and Savini deserve a lot of credit for that.

(Incidentally, here’s a little trivia for all of you Maniac fans — did you know that Joe Spinell’s loathsome Frank Zito was actually named after Joe Zito, who was apparently friends with William Lustig.)

Of all the Friday the 13th films, The Final Chapter probably features the strongest cast.  It certainly features one of the best “final girls”, with Kimberly Beck giving the type of strong performance  that Dana Kimmell failed to supply in Part 3.  Though only Corey Feldman and Crispin Glover would go on to any greater fame, the entire cast is likable and, as opposed to previous and future installments, no one gives a weak performance.  (Even the gimmicky twins do well enough.)  Though I know several people will laugh at this, I sincerely believe that there is an art to giving an effective performance in a film like Friday the 13th.  The key, I think, is to be likable enough that people will watch you and wish you well yet, at the same time, to be bland enough that nobody will be traumatized by your eventual death.  If anything, the cast of The Final Chapter isn’t quite bland enough.  Everyone brings almost too much life to these thinly drawn characters and, as a result,  it’s hard not to feel a little bit traumatized when they start dying.  Crispin Glover, for instance, gave such a quirky and interesting performance that I was actually pretty depressed to see him get that meat cleaver buried in his face.  As well, Peter Barton and Barbara Howard make such a cute couple that it’s upsetting that neither one of them survives to the end of the film. 

Despite the film’s title, the fourth installment of the Friday the 13th franchise was hardly the final chapter and it’s pretty obvious that it was never meant to be.  While I know that some people do complain about the cynicism behind the film’s title, I happen to love it.  It’s like a throwback to the classic old exploitation films that were always sold with sordid titles — like Too Young To Die and Arrested at 17 — that in no way reflected the actual content of the film.  Slasher films are the direct descendants of movies like Reefer Madness and Dwain Esper’s Maniac and it’s nice to see that heritage honored with the false promise of a final chapter.

Though the film’s ending was clearly set up to allow Tommy to eventually take Jason’s place (and, seriously, imagine how disturbing that could have been), Jason would eventually return.  But first, the series would take a major detour with its most over-the-top chapter yet.  We’ll talk about the infamous Friday the 13th — A New Beginning tomorrow.