Movie of the Month: Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Brandon & Britnee watch Who Can Kill a Child? (1976).

Boomer: ¿Quién puede matar a un niño? (Who Can Kill a Child?) tells the story of British tourist Tom and his wife Evelyn, who is six months pregnant. The couple have left behind their two slightly older children in order to take a final holiday to the Spanish island of Almanzora before the new baby comes. Tom has visited the island before, and we first meet the two when they arrive at their first stop in the coastal town Benavis, enjoying the city’s festival while blissfully unaware that two mutilated corpses have washed up on the beach. The two rent a boat and make their way to Almanzora, only to discover a village devoid of adults, and the children they encounter have a vague air of menace. As the sun beats down mercilessly on the two Brits, they encounter a couple of holdouts and learn what has happened on this seemingly peaceful island.

There are a lot of beautifully composed shots in this film, with a couple of standouts: the pan to Evelyn in the village watering hole, revealing a shadowy and imposing figure behind a beaded curtain, who turns out to be a seemingly innocent girl; likewise, the reverse shot revealing the swarm of children coming over the hill near the fisherman’s house is also wonderfully done. Overall, however, the cinematography and direction avoid being too expressionistic or cinematic, instead relying on a more documentarian style of filmmaking to evoke the feeling that the situation in which the couple find themselves could happen to anyone; this was an intentional choice on the part of the late director Narciso Ibáñez Serrador (who also directed The House that Screamed, which I’ve been trying to find for years) and cinematographer José Luis Alcaine (who is probably better known for his collaborations with Pedro Almodóvar, including Volver, La mala educación, and La piel que habito). Despite the realism of the visuals, the narrative itself is straightforwardly literary in its use of dramatic irony. I particularly like that Tom identifies the flower which he and Evelyn encounter en route to Almanzora as having come from the island, noting that the currents often carry objects from the island to the coast, both of them fully ignorant of the corpses they missed by that much: first when the bus on which they arrive passes the ambulance carrying the first body away from the beach, and again when both ignore the commotion at the Benavis shorefront out of a heat-induced apathy.

On my second watch, I also noticed that the couple are as damned by Tom’s self-importance as they are by whatever event is happening on the island. Evelyn first wants to stay in Benavis (which would have saved them from the fate that befell them on the island, at least for a time) but is convinced to proceed to Almanzora. Tom claims to know a great deal about the island, having been there eleven years prior, but despite his previous knowledge has to be corrected about the correct pronunciation of its name, foreshadowing that he doesn’t know nearly as much as he thinks he does and telegraphing that the coming time when the duo will briefly think that their situation has improved will prove to be a false hope. Also, who the hell brings up the child murder-suicide subplot of La dolce vita on a quasi-romantic holiday?

When Brandon reached out to me to let me know that he and Britnee had loved the movie, he also noted that the opening sequence, which featured 7.5 minutes of archival footage of real life atrocities, mostly featuring images of crying children, was “A Lot.” At first I wasn’t sure what he meant, since the screening that I attended last summer as part of the Un-Hitched film series (which also featured Body Double and Special Effects), until I recalled that that screening’s presenter did mention at the time that other versions of the film contained an opening that we “[didn’t] need to see.” It appears that the longer, more questionable version is the only one available to the general viewing public, as it appeared on both the Blu-ray that Brandon acquired and the DVD version I rented from Austin’s Vulcan Video. I’m not certain from where the 16mm version I saw first came or for what region it was edited, but moving forward I would recommend skipping straight to the second “chapter.” It’s not just that the real-life material is slapped onto the film haphazardly (and tastelessly, although with good intentions; one of the special features on the DVD is an interview with the director, who admits regret at having started the film this way … because he feels he should have put it at the end), but also that the overlong introduction throws off the film’s flow. Now, the first encounter with the silent child at the pier at Almanzora comes at the 28th minute, not the 21st. We see the first dead body on the island at 40 minutes, not 32.5. A few modern reviews of the film littered about the internet bemoan the film’s “slow” pace, and it may merely be that the film’s timing feels off because it’s frontloaded.

Britnee, having seen the film with the brutal and unnecessary prologue, do you think that the film would benefit from having that footage moved to the end? How would that color the film experience? I’m assuming that removing it altogether rather than abbreviating it or relocating it is the best solution, but maybe you disagree. Is it really necessary in order to understand the film’s thesis, or does it muddle the water? Is the film even a good demonstration of that thesis?

Britnee: Watching those 8 horrid minutes of children suffering (mostly dying) from war and poverty had my stomach in knots. It was also insane seeing the real-life footage in high-quality as Brandon’s Blu-Ray copy had a wonderful restoration of the movie. My experience with the film’s intro may be a bit different than most since I don’t really have any close relationships with children. I find children to be more annoying than adorable, and I try to avoid them for the most part. Had I not watched the grisly intro, my emotions during the film would have been a bit more stagnant. I would have maintained a “Just kill the damn kids!” attitude from beginning to end. Once the 8 minutes were finally over, my heart was broken from the pain and suffering children have to go through for things that are out of their control. So when the kids on the island of Almanzora began to start their evil shit, I had some empathy for them and saw their evil behavior as them evolving into powerful beings to take revenge on the adults that they depended on for protection. However, any bit of sympathy I had for these island kids went down the drain after they used an elderly man as a human piñata. After that bit, my reaction to everything was, “Dammit, kill that kid!”

The thought of having the intro at the end of the film did cross my mind, and I honestly think that would’ve been so much better. I do think that footage is necessary to understand the evolution that is occurring in the children, causing them to kill the adults, and having it at the end of the film would still make that point clear. The lengthy intro can be a turn off for someone coming into this movie for the first time. If this version would have played at the screening Boomer attended, I could imagine there being a few walk-outs. Not only is the footage’s placement in the film an issue, but the length is totally unnecessary. A brief 1 minute montage would be enough for the audience to understand what the film is trying to say.

Who Can Kill a Child? is most certainly a film that isn’t afraid of crossing boundaries. One particular scene that I found to be surprising was when a smiling toddler got shot in the head and his dead body was pushed off a window sill. I mean, he was trying to kill the film’s main couple, but I was still shocked to see his bloody corpse after the act. Brandon, were you surprised by the film’s treatment of dead children? Were there any particular scenes that surprised you?

Brandon: If I was surprised by the matter-of-fact depictions of ficitional children’s lifeless bodies, it’s because it was initially unclear how willing the film was to Go There. After the (deliberately) excruciating montage of real-life war atrocity footage that opens the film, onscreen depictions of violence suddenly decide to play coy for reasons unknown. Because this is a genre film from the amoral grindhouse days of the 1970s, it’s immediately clear that this island of tykes are up to no good, but their creepiness begins with a quiet, eerie menace instead of a non-stop violent assault. Their first kill after the British couple arrives on their shore is of a local old geezer whom they bash over the head with his own cane offscreen. The film is willing to show the giallo-flavored red acrylic stage blood pouring from his head wound, but the actual blows that do him in are obscured as sounds, not images. What makes the movie remarkable is how its violence escalates from there into shocking explosions of brutality. The old man’s body is strung up like a piñata and swiped at with a scythe. The children responsible are ultimately mowed down with an automatic assault rifle, execution-style, when they block the road back to the shore. They’re beaten back with a boat oar in desperation as they swarm our child-killing “hero” like a zombie hoard.

In retrospect, it’s even creepier the violence is gradually escalated in this way. It’s clear that the children were always going to kill the adult-tourist invaders who disrupt their community; they just take their time to savor the hunt by turning it into a schoolyard game. It’s kind of a shame, then, that the documentary footage intro tips the film’s hand in prematurely exposing its willingness to Go There, since it takes a while for the violence to re-escalate back to that horrific starting point.

Because of that gradual escalation of violence, it’s difficult for any standout scene or set piece to top the climactic struggle Britnee already mentioned, where our hero shoots a child dead, point blank, in the face. Hounded into a cramped, locked cell with nowhere left to go, the tourist couple have no choice but to finally fight back instead of merely avoiding death. So, they find themselves firing a gun at the cutest, most cherubic cartoon of a child. It initially plays as if that transgression had taught the other kids a lesson (or at least a boundary) and they back off from the adults’ holding cell in apparent defeat. Except, they’ve been playing the long game! They’ve recruited and undercover soldier on the inside who can attack the pregnant tourist from within her own belly in an exceptionally gruesome moment of body horror. It feels as if the entire film is leading up to the crisis of that holding cell, a bottled-up stage play of grief, pain, and torment that really caught me off guard in its willingness to Go There psychologically on top of its willingness to depict brutal acts of violence against children & adults alike.

But what, exactly, do we make of this war between adults & children? What grievances inspired this climactic showdown? At one point, a single-scene character floats the idea that the children are striking back because in outbreaks of war & famine due to adults follies “It’s the children who suffer the most.” You could read that grievance as lip service to justify the war-atrocity prologue, but I do like the idea that these kids collectively have a cosmic vendetta against adults for bringing them into a cruel world where they have no protections or control in times of crisis, even though those crises are always adults’ fault. Then again, the film seemingly has more interest in its titular question of how far you’d have to be pushed to willingly kill a child than it does in exploring the source of this cosmic vendetta, which is why so much emphasis is put on that climactic showdown where our hero pulls the trigger on a gun aimed at an angelic tyke’s face. Boomer, what point do you think this film was trying to make in drawing its battle lines between adults & children, and just how invested do you think it is in exploring those themes vs. merely playing up the moral conundrum posed by the title?

Boomer: Metatextually, having watched the interview with the director, I can say that he was heavily invested in making the film about the damage done to children by adult violence. Most sources online note that the film was based on film was based on a novel by Juan José Plans’s, El juego de los niños (The Children’s Game), but in the interview Serrador noted that the film and the novel were created at the same time, and that the film was actually released prior to the novel’s publication, although I haven’t found any other evidence to support that claim. He noted that the novel provides more of an explanation as to why the children behave the way that they do, citing a yellow dust of possibly extraterrestrial origin settling over the (in the novel) landlocked town and causing the erratic and violent behavior of the children. I also can’t corroborate this, as the novel has never been translated into english, but he noted that he found the explanation unsatisfactory as it focused more on the moral quandary and removed adult violence from the equation. So we know that, from authorial intent, he was less concerned with making an exploitation film that featured characters struggling with the moral quandary of attacking children than he was with making a film that tackled the evils of war and the aftereffects that such struggles have on those least able to understand and withstand them.

But if Barthes is right and the author is dead, then I have to say that, purely within the text, I feel that the film is less concerned with that track. As noted before, my initial viewing did not contain the prologue of real world violence; even with that, the only real attention paid to the motivation of the children comes in the shop where the English couple purchase film, when the clerk notes that children suffer the most from war, poverty, and general big evils. It feels more like lip service to me, a prevarication to excuse creating a film that explores how far one would have to be pushed before they would commit to so evil a plan as murdering kids. That having been said, I don’t feel like the film revels in its violence, either; we’re certainly not supposed to feel a sense of relief, justice, or triumph when Tom is finally forced to mow down a line of children with an automatic weapon, nor should we rejoice when he kills the child in the window. I think it’s certainly not a coincidence that the couple we follow is English, hailing from the power that arguably did the most damage to the world in their colonial conquerings (although Spain was, um, certainly not innocent in their expansions either, so there’s possibly a little intracolonial hypocrisy going on there). When viewed through that lens, however, one can argue that the film is a mea culpa for a colonial power, which would lend credence to the director’s professed values, even if they are not clear on screen.

When I saw the film as part of the Un-Hitched series, it was described as “What if The Birds, but with kids?” And that’s certainly present, but the director also cited Night of the Living Dead as an inspiration as well, which is most clearly apparent in the final scene, where our “hero” (although Tom is not nearly as much of a hero as Dead‘s Ben is) is killed by the authorities. Britnee, what other films do you see as having inspired or being inspired by Who Can Kill a Child?

Britnee: I got heavy The Wicker Man vibes from Who Can Kill a Child?, and being that The Wicker Man was released just 3 years prior, it isn’t outlandish for me to suggest that film had some influence on Who Can Kill a Child?. Both films involve outsiders stuck on an island full of deceitful human predators, carefully keeping track of their every move as part of some sick and twisted game. I was quick to categorize Who Can Kill a Child? as a killer kid movie, which it totally is, but it’s just as much of an island horror as well. Something about being stuck on an island where everyone is out to get you is deeply unsettling. The film taking place on such an isolated island scared me just as much as the bloodthirsty children. I also want to mention that the timing of the couple’s arrival to Almanzora really amped up the island horror levels. The massacre on the island began as quickly as it ended, which was made apparent by the unattended cart of melted ice cream and almost completely burnt rotisserie chickens.

When Brandon and I watched the movie, he said something along to lines of, “That’s their Malachi,” when the eerily silent boy rubs Evelyn’s pregnant belly. That’s when I started to make influential connections between Who Can Kill a Child? and Children of the Corn. The children of Almanzora were not as loud and rowdy as the youth of Gatlin, Nebraska, but they were very organized and had the same determination to take down all adults. Come to think of it, the only time we hear the children make any noise is when they fake cry or give Birthday party cheers while wacking at a human piñata. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Children of the Corn, but I can imagine that there are even more similarities that can be picked out. Now that we’re getting closer to Halloween, it may be a good time for me to pay those Corn Kids a visit and binge the series.

At least with Children of the Corn, the adults make it out alive, which I totally thought was going to happen with Evelyn and Tom. Brandon, would you have preferred an ending where the couple made it off the island after blowing it up (or something along those lines)? Or were you satisfied with the film’s actual ending?

Brandon: The big-budget Hollywood ending to this nasty Euro-grindhouse provocation would be for the heroes to prevail & neutralize the threat while clearing a path back to safety. There is something perversely funny about the idea of that traditional victory involving the detonated explosion of an island full of children since, as the titular moral conflict suggests, that act is typically crueler than it is heroic. As amused as I might have been by that massacre being framed as a Happy Ending, I do think the way the film concludes is already perfect. It gifts us with the fantastic children-as-zombies visual homage to the Romero template in one of the film’s strongest set pieces. It’s an admirably honest participation in the inherent nihilism of the horror genre at large. And, most importantly, it emphasizes that the British couple were doomed from the moment they arrived, and the delay of their demise was just a sick schoolyard game. I can’t imagine an alternate ending that could be equally satisfying, which is more than I can say about the way the film begins.

Lagniappe

Boomer: An interesting behind-the-scenes tidbit: the cinematographer was the son of a film developer who handled the processing of rolls of film shot by the director’s father, leading the cinematographer to joke in his interview that he had been developing the director’s prints since they were children.

Britnee: Tom reminds me so much of this douchey guy that was in a tour group with me in Rome. He was constantly bragging about the 2 months he spent in Rome during his college days while being dismissive of everyone’s opinions because he was such a Rome “expert.” Tom was being a little bit of a show-off in Almanzora just because he spent a short amount of time there many moons ago, and I think that’s what really led to the couple’s demise. He should’ve just listened to his wife.

Brandon: I love how sweaty & gross the two leads are allowed to become over the course of this picture. This is Daylight Horror in the most literal sense, as the heat & sunshine are almost as much of a menace as the killer children. To that point, I initially made fun of Evelyn’s unfathomably tragic bangs in the early scenes, but once they were pasted to her forehead with sweat in the island heat, I appreciated how disheveled & panicked they made her look. By the time she has her Big Scene in the holding cell she looks demonically possessed, which fits the heightened tone of the moment beautifully, and I’m not sure it would’ve played that way without those shitty, godawful bangs setting the stage.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
November: Hanna presents Rare Exports (2010)
December: Brandon presents Strange Days (1995)
January: The Top Films of 2019

-The Swampflix Crew

I Drink Your Blood (1970)

The two things I dislike & distrust most about 1970s grindhouse genre cheapies are the rampant depictions of sexual assault and the lethargic, stoney-baloney pacing. I Drink Your Blood suffers from both, yet the movie charmed me anyway. For all the exploitative & energetic faults I can find in the film as a supposed shock-a-minute gore fest, it’s just too gleefully & gloriously trashy on a conceptual level for me to disregard its merits. A nasty grindhouse gross-out about rabid, Satanic hippie cannibals chowing down on the God-fearing folks of a town just like yours, I Drink Your Blood is perfectly calibrated midnight fare. Even my complaints about its pacing & careless sexual assault issues are more endemic to the era of its genre than indicative of its strengths as an isolated picture; the rape occurs off-screen, not at all played for titillation, and the slow pace allows breathing room for a rowdy public screening party atmosphere (that I was likely missing out on by watching the film alone on my couch via Kanopy). This is one of those curios that’s commendable for the audacity of its own existence, especially considering its ludicrous premise and the extremity of its apparent politics—a movie that’s most entertaining for the disbelief that your watching it all, that it was ever made or distributed.

Satan-worshipping hippies invade a small town, planning to stage sacrificial rituals in the nearby woods. They brutalize & rape eavesdroppers, laugh in the face of local children & elderly, and tiptoe toward graduating from animal sacrifices to their Dark Lord to human ones. Fed up with the adults around him’s unwillingness to confront these youth culture reprobates, a child plans to rid his town of the hippie scum by feeding them meat pies he injects with rabies-infected dog blood. The plan backfires, as the hippies foam at the mouth and become crazed cannibals, eating everyone they can get their mouths on, spreading rabies to survivors. The result is the mayhem typical to a zombie outbreak, with the red acrylic stage blood of most grindhouse productions bathing the town as lives, limbs, and infected rats are liberally strewn about. The rabies is also spread through the hippies’ shameless sexual exploits (such as banging an entire crew of construction workers at once), recalling early stirrings of Cronenberg freak-outs like Shivers. You could probably also track the film as an influence on other mania-driven horrors like George Romero’s The Crazies, Sion Sono’s Suicide Club, and even the recent Nic Cage pic Mom & Dad, but ultimately it feels very much like a product of its time, just another batshit insane drive-in horror of the grindhouse era.

Nothing demonstrates I Drink Your Blood’s quality of being of its time quite like the film’s connection to the Manson Family murders. Less than a year after the infamous slaughter of Sharon Tate & house guests, this film shamelessly exploited the public’s fear of acid-dropping, Satan worshipping hippies by making the entire Free Love moment look like a cover for the hedonistic violence that was secretly driving the counterculture. It even makes hippies’ perceived egalitarian racial politics out to be something oddly sinister, with widely varied ethnicities represented among the cannibals’ ranks exaggerated as if they were gangs from The Warriors. And just in case you don’t connect the dots between those killer hippie scum and the killer hippies in the newspapers, the cannibals in the film write “PIG” in lipstick on their first human sacrifice’s stomach, one of the more widely-shared lurid details from the Sharon Tate tragedy, I Drink Your Blood attempts to scare audiences with alarmist depictions of youths gone out of control, the same tactic exploited in later cult pictures like Class of 1999. The irony, of course, is that most of the audience for these shock-a-minute genre pictures is the youth of the day, so that they always play as a kind of perverse, tongue-in-cheek parody of that alarmism.

Despite all of I Drink Your Blood’s shoddiness in craft and laughable attacks on the ills of youth culture & peace-loving (read: Satan-worshipping) hippiedom, the film is still grimy enough to be genuinely upsetting. Its characters’ hyperviolent LSD freak-outs are never accompanied by goofball hallucinatory imagery — instead manifesting as frustrated, sweaty intensity & wide-eyed madness. Even before the LSD or rabies kicks in, the hippies are already at least a little terrifying, especially as they maniacally chase rats out of their new squat with early signs of bloodlust. That mood-setter makes the eventual rabid hippie mayhem feel like a plague of rats spreading through small-town America – a grotesquely reductive, Conservative view of the times (hilariously so). There’s an authenticity to that viewpoint too, as even the crew of this production had territorial fights with the residents of the small town where they filmed, uptight folks who did not want their kind around. I could lie & say that this genuinely disturbing grime & historical context are what makes the film worth a watch, but the truth is that those are just lagniappe textures to the movie’s true bread & rabid dog’s blood-injected butter: the absurdity of its premise. Like most grindhouse fare, this is a movie that’s largely entertaining for its over-the-top conceptual indulgences, something you have to tolerate a little moral unease & impatience to fully appreciate.

-Brandon Ledet

The Night of a Thousand Cats (1972)

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The 1970s was a truly vile era of schlock cinema, a decade of post-Hays Code liberation that’s just as notable for its New Hollywood artistic renaissance as it is for grotesque drive-in provocations like Cannibal Holocaust & I Spit on Your Grave. Whenever I watch horror films from the 70s era of grindhouse grime I usually prepare myself for the possibility of disgust, particularly in the decade’s beyond questionable depictions of sexual assault. I do have a few pet favorites from the era, though, rough at the edges gems that could’ve only been produced in the lawless days when exploitation cinema was king, a malevolent, slovenly king. I don’t want to say, for instance, that I’ve seen the minor schlock title The Night of a Thousand Cats more than anyone else, but it is a nasty 70s horror title I return to far more often than is typical for me. Ever since I picked up its laughably shoddy DVD print at an ancient FYE for pocket change, the film has held a strange, undeniable fascination for me. It’s something that could have only been made in what I consider to be the sleaziest, most disreputable era of genre cinema and, yet, I return to it often in sheer bewilderment.

You might expect a horror film with the title The Night of a Thousand Cats to be laughable camp, but somehow the inherent goofiness of a mass hoard of ravenous, man-eating house cats is severely undercut here. Much like with the mannequin-commanding telepathy of Tourist Trap, The Night of a Thousand Cats is far too grimy, loopy, cruel, and unnerving in its feline-themed murders to be brushed aside as a campy trifle. Its cocktail napkin plot is thus: a mysterious, wealthy man flirts with women by flaunting his opulence. Once (easily) seduced, he flies them back to his remote castle via helicopter, murders them, stores their heads in glass cases, and tosses their remaining meat to his ungodly collection of house cats, which might just meet the 1,000 benchmark indicated in the title. Before he can complete his collection of lovely lady heads, his cat army escapes confinement, turns on him, and eats him alive. It’s an inevitable comeuppance in a bare bones story with little to no frills in its individual beats. There’s certainly an alternate universe where the exact same premise could be played for absurdist, camp-minded laughs, but something about this film lodges itself under your skin. It’s disturbing to the point of feeling unethical, even more so in its treatment of cats than its treatment of women.

If The Night of a Thousand Cats were produced in 2016 there’s no doubt its titular feline hoard would be made entirely of CGI. In 1972, they used real cats. Like, so many goddamn cats. A lot of 1970s schlock is difficult to watch due to its gleeful cruelty towards fictional women. This film is disturbing for the way it treats real life animals. A sea of cats whine in a bare, concrete cage where they’re fed from above by casually-tossed, rare “human” meat. What’s worse is that the cats themselves are tossed at both their fleeing victims & their cruel master. It’s not quite the nasty on-screen animal cruelty of Cannibal Holocaust, but it’s still disturbing to watch. The only cinematic reference point I can really compare it to is the feline kill at the heart of Dario Argento’s Inferno. As uncomfortable as the film is to watch as an animal lover, however, it’s still fascinating as a relic from a time when filmmakers could go unchecked in such a questionable way. My usual discomfort with grindhouse slime is in the way sexual violence is exploited for shock value & (in the worst cases) titillation. The cat-tossing & cat-hoarding of this work is surely immoral in a similarly sleazy way. I’d never want to see it recreated in a modern context and it probably should have never been made in the first place, but it’s a fascinating document as is, one that’s effectively disturbing in both its on & off screen implications.

What’s most surprising about The Night of a Thousand Cats is that its depiction of predatory sexuality is actually somewhat enlightened & thoughtful, depending on how you read the film’s intent. Since there is a surprisingly minuscule amount of dialogue holding the film together, the terror of The Night of a Thousand Cats is mostly centered on the predatory evils of masculine seduction. The bearded playboy killer who collects heads & house cats could easily be presented as a target for envy from the audience. He vacations in beautiful locations, seduces beautiful women, and lives in an inherited mansion complete with an Igor-esque butler named Goro. The killer’s entire seduction process amounts to “Look at my helicopter,” but it’s a flirtation that works every single time. Instead of coming across like a prototype for The World’s Most Interesting Man, however, he’s played as an obvious creep. He directly tells his romantic partners that he wants to possess them, to “put you in a place where no one can’t touch you,” “a crystal cage”. The women find this possessiveness charming, but for the audience it’s a horror show, one that only leads to more cat feedings. We know so little about the killer that he’s defined solely by his wealth, his sexuality, and his masculinity. He inherited wealth from a family of “collectors” & strives to assemble his own collection of sorts that will stand as “the most interesting of all”, but that’s about it. We don’t even know for sure why he’s obsessed with cats. His interest in cats & women seems to be one in the same: a violent obsessiveness that’s smartly played for chills & vague menace instead of shameless titillation.

Some of the confusion in this film’s plot is surely due to its heavily-edited US release, which cuts a good half-hour off the original Mexican work for a slim hour-long runtime. The speed & disjointedness of The Night of a Thousand Cats plays to the film’s strengths, however, and through its strange, clunky edits the film feels at times like a clumsy art house dream world. In a way, it plays like a nasty grindhouse version of Knight of Cups, with its loose, largely dialogue-free disposal of beautiful women & the heavy psychedelic melancholy of a deeply selfish man. I don’t want to oversell this film’s competence. It’s an ugly mess first & foremost, but I’m continually fascinated by the surreal quality of its ugliness, the surprisingly deft way it handles the killer’s misogyny and (of course) its never-ending sea of bloodthirsty cats. I’m usually all for leaving the nastier side of grindhouse horror in the past, but The Night of a Thousand Cats is one ghost from that era I’d love to see brought back & re-examined. It’s a singularly strange & nasty work I return to way more often than I probably should.

-Brandon Ledet

Mad Ron’s Prevues from Hell (1987)

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threehalfstar

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Way, way back in the magical time of the 1980s, VHS cassettes opened up a new, exciting world where films could suddenly be copied & distributed among nerdy weridos looking to sidestep the interference (and profits) of the movie studios that owned them. That role has, obviously, been filled by the Internet in recent years, so it’s hard to imagine just how exciting this development was at the time. It was suddenly dirt cheap for independent producers to churn out schlock & put it directly in the hands of fans. Special interest markets like skateboarders & pro wrestling nerds all of a sudden had a way to record & distribute their favorite content among like-minded geeks. Not only was a new market of nerdom opened for media junkies that allowed them to trade & curate content once impossible to own at home, but there was an element of danger & piracy involved in the process, which afforded the underground video market the same inherently dorky cool as phrases like “the dark web”.

Mad Ron’s Prevues from Hell could have only existed in this sleazily magical time when underground VHS trading was a dangerous-feeling form of nerdy fun. Less of a documentary & more of a straight-forward compilation, Prevues from Hell assembles a montage of movie trailers from horror’s drive-in, grindhouse era. It’s an endless assault of in-bad-taste horror advertising from the 1970s loosely stapled together by stale comedy bits that should feel familiar to anyone who’s ever caught a television broadcast hosted by an Elvira or Morgus-type. The film seemingly assembles every Fangoria & Rick Baker fan in Pennsylvania in an ancient cinema to serve as the audience for this cavalcade of schlock trailers & evil ventriloquist-MC’d wraparound segments. The monster make-up is fairly top notch for a straight-to-VHS horror compilation, but this connective tissue is ultimately a painfully corny diversion from the film’s main attraction: advertisements for long-gone coming attractions. That is, unless someone really, really wanted to see gags like a dummy handing his ventriloquist operator a severed finger & quipping, “Get it? I’m giving you the finger! I’m giving you the finger!”

As for the film trailers included in Prevues from Hell, there’s an interesting variety on display: cult classics with wide appeal (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Night of the Living Dead, Argento’s Deep Red, De Palma’s Sisters); grotesque films I wish I could erase from my memory (The Wizard of Gore, 2000 Maniacs, The Last House on the Left); forgotten gems I’d love to track down (The Corpse Grinders, Cannibal Girls, Flesh Feast); and nasty-looking works of depravity you’d have to pay me to watch (Africa: Blood & Guts, Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, etc.). The most interesting thing the film’s endless montage of grindhouse trailers does is set up Prevues from Hell as a cultural relic from two separate eras of cult cinema. It’s not only an artifact of the underground VHS trading era of the 80s & 90s; it’s also a comprehensive tour of the carnie huckster style of advertising that defined the drive-in era of horror trailers. A lot of schlock producers at the time threw all of their weight into the advertising end of their product, promising the world in the trailers & having very little pressure to actually deliver a quality product once tickets were purchased. The claims in these ads are outrageous: “The most blood-chilling motion picture you’ve ever seen!” “The most shocking ordeal ever permitted onscreen!” “The world’s first horror movie made in hallucinogenic hypno-vision!” The spirit of larger than life hucksters like William Castle & David Friedman are alive in every ad. Any one of these producers could’ve enjoyed a second life as a self-hyped politician. And, sadly, because these trailers are primarily from horror’s nastiest era, the 1970s, they do a pretty good job representing the gleeful depictions of sexual assault that make a lot of these works much more enjoyable to digest in 90 second clips that they’d be as full-length films.

Of course, everything about Mad Ron’s Prevues from Hell is obsolete in 2016. You could most likely find each & every one of these trailers (if not the films in their entirety) uploaded to YouTube in some form and a very helpful Letterboxd user has assembled the full list of titles the film compiled so you don’t even have to bother with the corny wraparound segments to track down what made the cut. Modern documentaries like Corman’s World & Electric Boogaloo that function like similarly-minded schlock clip compilations provide enough talking head interviews & historical context to make their trips down horror advertising memory lane worthwhile in an informational sense, but Prevues from Hell provides no such context. For instance, who is Mad Ron? Although he’s shown twice in the film I honestly have no idea who he is or what he contributed to the production. Does he own the theater where this was filmed? Is that how he obtained the trailer reels on display? Does that even matter? Prevues from Hell is only an educational experience in that it’s a glimpse into two long-gone eras of horror’s past: the grindhouse drive-in 70s & the underground video swap 80s. Otherwise, you’re probably better off skimming YouTube & assembling your own Prevues from Hell off the cuff.

-Brandon Ledet

Pieces (1982)

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“You don’t have to go to Texas for a chainsaw massacre” declares one of the taglines for 1982’s exploitation horror film Pieces, although you would have had to be in Austin this week to see the screening of the 35mm master print, cobbled together by Grindhouse Releasing from the extant copies of the film (and from which their remastered 2008 DVD was produced). The film’s other tagline, “It’s exactly what you think it is,” is also accurate–Pieces is a solidly hilarious and gratuitously gory flick about a campus killer who murders women with a chainsaw, full of ridiculous and unrealistic dialogue that would give a more modern postmodern horror spoof a run for its money. Shot largely in Spain and set in Boston, Pieces will leave you breathless, but from laughter, not fear. This movie is a camp masterpiece, and has set the bar high as my new standard for horror comedy.

In 1942, a ten year old boy is caught red-handed putting together a jigsaw puzzle featuring a nude pin-up. Furiously, the boy’s mother tells him that she is going to burn this filth, but he returns to the room with an ax and a hacksaw and chops her into, well, pieces. Forty years later, a rash of murders-by-chainsaw are perpetrated against a number of co-eds at an unnamed Boston university, and Detectives Bracken (Christopher George) and Holden (Frank Bana) are sent to investigate. The suspects include surly groundskeeper Willard (Paul L. Smith, best known for playing Bluto opposite Robin Williams’s Popeye a few years earlier), reserved closeted anatomy professor Arthur Brown (Jack Taylor), and the helpful but absent minded Dean (Edmund Purdom). Kendall James (Ian Sera), the boyfriend of one of the victims, is also treated as a suspect initially, but is ultimately enlisted by Bracken as his on-campus liaison, leading to the younger man acting as the primary investigator of the murders despite the fact that he is even less suited to this role than he is to being the campus stud. I mean, Sera’s not an ugly guy, and his awful hair is one thing, but there are no attempts to hide the fact that he’s wearing lifts throughout the movie, and still stands a head shorter than almost everyone on screen. Rounding out the cast is Lynda Day as Mary Riggs, a former tennis player turned undercover policewoman, although she ends up having to be saved by Kendall far more often than she should.

There appears to be some contention among the fanbase as to whether or not the film was intended to be a comic film or a more straightforward example of schlock cinema; it surely features the titillating nudity and gory gross-outs of other films from the latter genre (and equal opportunity nudity at that!), but I can’t imagine anyone involved in the making of the movie could have been under the impression they were making anything other than a humorous exercise in bad taste. Some of the scenes feel like the crew was in such a rush that they couldn’t afford the time to do more than one take. The dialogue syncing is awful, the lines themselves swing wildly from tonally dissonant purple prose to over-the-top shrieks and alien approximations of police procedural patter, and one of the murder victims pisses herself. That’s not even getting into the killer reconstructing his pornographic jigsaw puzzle in the film’s present while also assembling a jigsaw woman from his victims, the running gag of Bracken and his eternally unlit cigar, an extended aerobics class sequence, and even a woman skateboarding into a sheet of glass being carried across the street by two men. This film is comedy gold, and I loved every minute of it. Just try to watch this scene and tell me that Pieces is meant to be taken seriously.

As for the plot, it’s a fairly standard campus murder spree grindhouse-era flick, and there’s gruesomeness to spare here in addition to the comedy. The mystery, such as it is, isn’t resolved until the finale, although a set/location detail we see in the killer’s house is also present in another locale that is frequently seen, meaning that sharp-eyed viewers will figure out who the killer is before the halfway mark, but that makes the film no less fun. Special mention here should go to Day, who was well known at the time of release for her role on TV’s Mission: Impossible; at no point does she break character or the fourth wall, but she’s also obviously delighted to be participating in this production. She’s a very magnetic screen presence, and I was glad to see that she is still alive, even though I wish she hadn’t retired from the screen so long ago.

My viewing experience of the film was somewhat unique, so I can’t say for certain that the 2008 DVD will recapture the same magic; I can say, however, that I intend to find it and purchase it for my personal collection ASAP. I recommend you watch this movie at the earliest opportunity. You won’t regret it.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond