The Redeemer: Son of Satan! (1978)

I love a cheap slasher.  There’s a grimy, D.I.Y. vibe to slashers that’s hard to find in horror genres that require more substantial budgets for special effects.  All you really need to make a barebones slasher is a few friends, a free weekend, case of beer, and a prop kitchen knife.  The bodycount murder-mystery template that most slashers follow provides just enough structure & purpose for what are otherwise hangout films, so that no-budget indies can somehow land regional, if not national distribution despite essentially being backyard movies.  Slashers don’t have to be especially cohesive or coherent to be worthwhile, since the draw of the genre is usually in the local, sub-professional quirks of their casts of victims.

The Redeemer: Son of Satan! pushes that disregard for coherence & cohesion past its breaking point.  As its more apt drive-in title Class Reunion Massacre suggests, it’s a loopy supernatural slasher set at a 10-year high school reunion, which is disrupted by a maniacal, possibly possessed priest.  The movie opens with an eerie shot of a fully clothed child emerging from underneath a lake with Terminator-level determination.  The mysterious child-demon coerces a local priest to kill unsuspecting alumni celebrating their class reunion, punishing them for the “sins” of adultery, alcoholism, and homosexual copulation.  The magical mechanics of that coercion remain a mystery, along with the origins of the lake-child and the priest’s connection to the class-reunion victims.  The result feels less like an actual movie than it feels like the dream you have after watching Prom Night.

The unexplained supernatural phenomena of The Redeemer establish an eerie mood before the film fully sinks into its slash-by-numbers formula, but they feel underdeveloped to the point of distraction & bafflement.  Disregarding the lake-child, the movie is basically about a Gene Parmesan style killer who wears a different generic disguise for each attack: priest robes, a clown mask, duck-hunter camo, etc.  Once you start trying to connect that killing spree to the priest’s extra thumb, his step-by-step tutorial of the face plaster process, his flamethrower-wielding puppet, and his supernatural child-boss, the whole thing unravels. All it really needed to do was set a maniacal preacher loose on victims he believed to be “sinners”, but instead it adds in a chaotic smattering of details from a more interesting movie that we’ll never get to see.

Regarding the local flavor of The Redeemer’s cast, there isn’t much to see here.  The film gets minor kudos for having multiple gay characters in its main roster, but it’s also a bodycount horror film so you can probably guess how that plays out.  Besides, the supernatural lake-child’s priest-hijack mission is too distracting for the central cast to stand out anyway.  There’s a wonderful sequence set in the preacher’s church, packed with candid shots of the locals in his congregation who fill the pews.  Otherwise, the movie doesn’t have much to offer except boredom, frustration, and bafflement.  It’s got an occasionally eerie mood and a few fun, scattered surprises, but it never really pulls itself together into anything solid.  I’d honestly be even more forgiving of those minor merits if it was just shots of drunk teens wielding a kitchen knife in the woods.  It’s almost worse that the movie teases more ambitious supernatural horror elements and then never does anything coherent with them.

-Brandon Ledet

There’s Someone Inside Your House (2021)

Thanksgiving was last week, and if your family is anything like mine, you probably heard the phrase “social justice” sneeringly used as an epithet as if we were talking about something as vile as omnipresent police brutality or human trafficking. Look in the mirror, reader, we made it through that! We are strong. Although you and I have managed to prevent having our brains completely rotted by propaganda, seeing the way that corporations can attempt to co-opt (whoops, sorry, I meant to say “address”) issues of social justice in their digestible products and mangle those concepts horribly gives a bit of insight into what those issues look like once they’ve filtered down to the level of the largely-unengaged (or propagandized) consumer. And it’s not great! 

Makani Young (Sydney Park) is the most recent addition to the group of outsiders at a high school in small town Nebraska, having transferred just a short time prior. Also in the group are: Makani’s best friend Alexandra Crisp (Asjha Cooper); Rodrigo Doran (Diego Josef), who has a mutual unspoken crush on Alexandra; and Zach Sandford (Dale Whibley), an archetypical stoner kid and the son of “Skipper” Sandford, a wealthy farmer with aims to control the whole town by purchasing foreclosed properties, including those that were home to the families of his son’s peers, and is engaged in an ongoing effort to dismantle the local police force and set up his own privatized department in town. 

Also rounding out this group of outcasts is Darby (Jesse LaTourette), a trans and apparently gender non-confirming student whose hopes to get out of this small town mostly revolve around a NASA internship for which they have replied. As a side note, I’m using “they” here, but the film is never very explicit on this topic; a quick Google search for performer Jesse LaTourette returns results that describe LaTourette as an actress and which use she/her pronouns, while a search for that name with “trans” in the search line located this blog post which states that “a friend reached out and confirmed that Jesse LaTourette identifies as genderfluid, and uses any pronouns,” but I’m hewing on the safe side since I can’t corroborate that elsewhere. The half-assedness of the film’s inclusivity is manifest in the text: we the audience are never really told what Darby’s pronouns are; the only explicit mention of their gender comes when self-congratulatory student council president Katie (Sarah Dugdale) reads an excerpt from their college application essay, which begins with your typical “I didn’t really understand diversity/struggle until I met someone who was different from me” spiel. On the one hand, this is actually a pretty good piece of storytelling in the way that it demonstrates the tendency of white, cisgender people to not only co-opt non-white and non-cis narratives as their own but to do so for profit (or in this case, to get into college), but on the other, it amuses me that Netflix doesn’t see themselves reflected in this narratively vilified character. 

We don’t meet these characters right away, however. Taking a page from the Scream playbook, we have the film equivalent of a cold open here, as the school’s presumably teenaged quarterback Jackson Pace (the very twenty-eight-year-old Markian Tarasiuk) engages in some telephonic locker room talk that establishes that he’s a pig and that there’s a Big Game™ that night. Jackson awakes from his pregame rest to discover that his phone has been stolen and the front door has been left ajar, but before he can complete his call to 911, he finds a trail of photographs that depict his violent hazing of a fellow footballer (we learn after the opening credits that this supposedly teenaged victim was still-alive Caleb, played by the also-28 Burkely Duffield, but from the photos it looked like Jackson had beaten a kid to death, which is also part of this film’s storytelling issues). Jackson follows the path laid out by these photos to his bedroom closet where he is confronted by a hooded killer wearing Jackson’s face. While begging for his life, Jackson asks the killer if they want money and offers to Venmo them, which was actually a fairly inspired bit of dialogue that got a chuckle out of me; these pleas fall on deaf ears, and Jackson is killed, while his killer simultaneously sends the evidence of Jackson being an abusive psycho to everyone at the football game. 

After Jackson’s Drew Barrymore pre-credits death, we meet the above-mentioned main characters as they huddle up and extend an olive branch to Caleb, who never reported the hazing that happened to him for fear of being outed as gay, only to end up outed by Jackson’s death and facing exactly the kind of ostracization he expected (combined with paranoia that he might have been involved in Jackson’s killing for revenge, despite being on the football field at the time of death). Suspicion also falls on Ollie Larsson (Théodore Pellerin), the school’s resident trench coat kid with the requisite tragic backstory: alcoholic parents who died in a drunk driving accident, teased by others that mom and dad killed themselves because their son was a psychopath, and being raised by his older brother who happens to be a local deputy, which gives him plenty of opportunities to access “files” for red herring purposes. Other potential killers include the aforementioned Skipper, what with his expansionist desires, attempts to set up his own police, and his extensive collection of Nazi memorabilia (most of which Zach has turned into marijuana paraphernalia), as well as Dave (Ryan Beil), “the only Uber driver in town,” whose attempts at standard rideshare driver small talk could also be interpreted sinisterly. 

After the second killing, of previously mentioned overachiever Katie, who is murdered while setting up for Jackson’s memorial service and is outed as the host of an anonymous but virulent white supremacist podcast, the local police set up a curfew after ineptly and thus unsuccessfully interviewing the students from the high school, except Zach, whose father’s lawyer pulls the boy from the line-up. That night, Ollie and Makani try to sneak away for a tryst, but join the rest of the town’s teenagers in gathering at a large house party to reveal their most hidden truths to one another in the hopes that doing so will protect them from the killer, assuming that the victims are being murdered because of their secrets. During the party, however, Rodrigo is outed as a secret drug addict and killed, with the killer once again wearing a 3D printed mask of the victim’s face. Makani, still hiding the real reason that she was sent to Nebraska to live with her grandmother, fears that she is next, and although the killer nearly does her in, she’s rescued just in time, although not before her secret is revealed to her peers: when she and several other junior varsity girls were force-fed alcohol at a bonfire in a hazing ritual by upperclassmen, she pushed another girl into the fire in an inebriated rage, burning the other girl severely. Her friends forgive her, and tell her that Ollie is in custody. It seems all is well, unless the killer is still out there, ready to strike terror at the seasonal corn maze. 

There are a lot of fun ideas at play here, and I wish that they were in a better movie. I don’t think that any of the film’s failures, which ultimately make this film feel like less than the sum of its parts, can be attributed to any one individual. The lack of cohesion with regards to the killer’s motivation may have been better handled in the novel on which the film is based; I haven’t read it, but internal motivations can be more easily conveyed on the page than on screen, and I get the feeling this happened here. The killer’s final lines, and the lines that our heroine delivers to the killer regarding the incoherence of their stated motives, both feel like the dramatic equivalent of orphaned punchlines, as they’re portrayed as if they are capstones on thematic statements about privilege and the lack thereof, but these supposed elements aren’t as present throughout the text as much as the finale tries to convince you they were. It feels empty and postural, a cynical attempt to appeal to the social justice generation by assimilating its language without grappling with its intent or the meaning of that discourse. If this is what everyone’s dads think social justice is, no wonder they hate it so much. Special praise should be given to the direction and the cinematography, however; director Patrick Brice (Creep) makes some really great choices, and cinematographer Jeff Cutter supports them with some beautiful photography. The finale of the opening scene is particularly striking, as the typical drama of for-cinema American high school football plays out on the field while the stands fall deathly silent as everyone assembled receives a message with the details of Jackson’s bullying, with Caleb then turning triumphantly to the stands after a successful touchdown to find all attention elsewhere. The scenes near the end of the film that take place in a burning corn field are also delightfully composed and visually dynamic, and the idea of a killer creating a mask of the victim is also a stroke of genius and makes for several unsettling scenes. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to make this one worth checking out.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

In the Earth (2021)

Understandably, there have been hundreds of attempts to make timely COVID-era films over the past year and a half. Most of these productions are on the level of Doug Liman’s Locked Down: throwaway novelties of limited scope & budget that’re only worthwhile as cultural time capsules of the minor inconveniences and quirks of daily life that define this never-ending global pandemic for most people surviving it. I’m interested in this burgeoning exploitation genre the way I am with most fad-cinema novelties of the past: disco musicals, aerobics-craze horrors, sports dramas about skateboarders, etc.  There is something especially cynical & dark about exploiting COVID-era “lockdown life”, though, since this particular global “fad” comes with a real-life bodycount in the millions.  From what I’ve seen so far, there have only been three works of COVID cinema that have really grappled with the grief, isolation, and exhaustion of the pandemic: the “screenlife” cyberghost story Host, the Bo Burnham video diary Inside, and Ben Wheatley’s psychedelic folk horror In the Earth.  This is likely a cinematic subject we’ll be unraveling for the rest of our lives, since it affects every last person on the planet, but genuinely great films made in the thick of this ongoing crisis have so far been in short supply.

For its part, In the Earth smartly reflects on the maddening grief of COVID-19 indirectly, from a distance. Its characters discuss the social isolation of quarantine and the bureaucratic discomforts of routine testing, but they never specify the exact scope or nature of the virus they’re protecting themselves from.  It’s less about the specific daily safety measures of COVID in particular, but more about how a year of social & spiritual isolation has permanently remapped their brains in chaotic, fucked up ways. By stepping away from the lockdown restrictions of city life to instead stage its COVID-flavored horror show in the woods, it recontextualizes this never-ending global crisis as a dual Man vs. Nature and Man vs. Man struggle, attempting to document something a little more philosophical about the absurdity, violence, and emptiness of living right now.  Its two central villains are trying to directly bargain with Nature through science and through religious mysticism, respectively, as if all our modern ills can only be solved by radically overhauling the way we live among each other on this planet (which feels right, even if nearly impossible).

A field researcher is guided by a park ranger into the thick of British wilderness, searching for a rogue scientist who’s gone off the grid and off the rails in her recent experiments.  They eventually find the mad scientist, who is directly communicating with trees trough a convoluted system of strobe lights & synthesizers she’s arranged in the woods like a sinister art instillation.  In her mind, this human-to-Nature line of communication could potentially unlock some great, authentic power that will help us better understand (and potentially command) our place in the global ecosystem.  The philosophical counterpoint to her experiment and the main obstacle on our journey to her is an axe-wielding maniac who stalks the woods.  His plan to reconnect with Nature involves local folklore rituals that honor the elder god Parnag Fegg, The Spirit of the Woods.  The advocate for science and the advocate for religion are both violently insane, of course, but they have a way of luring in the two new interlopers in the woods with calm, disarmingly kind demeanors that make them vulnerable to their respective extremist rhetoric. These are extreme times, after all, and the social isolation of the past year has made us all a little batty in our own special ways.

I can’t tell you exactly what Ben Wheatley was trying to communicate with this gory, psychedelic horror show, nor do I really want to hear the specifics of his intent.  As a horror movie, it’s perfectly entertaining & unsettling mix of sci-fi, folk horror, and woodland slasher genre tropes.  The surgical details of the axe wounds are just as effectively upsetting as the psychedelic freak-outs of its strobe light centerpiece.  As a nightmare reflection of our collective, COVID-era mindset, it’s much more difficult to pin down exactly what it’s doing except to say that it’s impressively strange, upsetting stuff considering its limited scope & budget.  So many movies being made in and about these times are so caught up in the mundane, practical details of daily life that they never transcend the novelty of its setting.  In the Earth is a rare example of COVID Cinema that aims for something a little more intangible and indescribable — something that captures the existential horrors of current life rather than the logistical ones.

-Brandon Ledet

W lesie dziś nie zaśnie nikt (Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight, 2020)

W lesie dziś nie zaśnie nikt (Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight) is a 2020 Polish horror film about a group of camping teens who are stalked, attacked, and murdered by mutants in the woods. It’s 10% Phenomenon by way of the aesthetic of the European forest and the house in which the mutants are sheltered by their mother, a solid 40% Friday the 13th per its teenage-camping-trip narrative, 20% Scream via the discussion of the “rules” of horror films, 15% C.H.U.D., 8% Housebound, 2% Fargo, and 3% X-Files black goo episode for some reason. Like certain things that advertise themselves as being 98% recycled material, it’s rugged, durable, and serviceable, but not that exciting.  

The film follows a standard gang of five teens who, along with their adult chaperone/instructor Iza (Gabriela Muskała), are guided through “Camp Adrenaline,” which not only separates the kids from their electronic devices but also appears to be at least partially punitive. At least that’s the impression that one gets from Julek (Michał Lupa), who I think is supposed to be “the fat one” but who just looks like, you know, a teenager, is explicitly stated to be there instead of at a South Korean eSports summit because of his parents’ concern regarding his hobbies (the kid has 900K YouTube subscribers, though, so that’s like a career, dad). There’s also handsome, athletic, and–based solely on the number of mobile devices he owns–presumably wealthy Daniel (Sebastian Dela), who is immediately attracted to blonde cardboard cutout Aniela (Wiktoria Gąsiewska), who honest-to-goodness curls her hair in preparation for the hike. Rounding out the teenage troupe is soft-spoken closeted kid Bartek (Stanisław Cywka), who seems excited to disconnect from social media and its accompanying jealousies and clout jockeying, and Zosia (Julia Wieniawa), our final girl who is haunted by the death of her family in a fiery car crash. 

No, you’re not having déjà vu. You have seen this before. You may not have seen it better, but you have seen it. 

Each of the deaths is nigh-identical to a kill you’ve seen before in the Friday the 13th movies. The first death, in which one of the kids is trapped in their sleeping bag and then bashed against a tree, is how Judy is killed in The New Blood (Part VII); the second, in which someone is impaled through the neck, has shades of the death of Jane (also from New Blood) and Jack (from the original film). There’s also a decapitation, which is a Friday staple, a head crushing and a person being bisected (both appear for the first time in Part III), and a woodchipper. The last of these accounts for the 2% Fargo mentioned above. I don’t know what it’s doing here, but as for that 10% Phenomenon, it turns out that the killers were the sons of a poor woods woman living in bucolic, pristine Polish woodland in her little adorable house, until one day they were turned into mutant cannibals (or at the very least cannibalistic humanoids) by the black goo inside of a meteorite* and were thereafter locked in their mother’s cellar (where they dwelled underground). We learn this from a man (Mirosław Zbrojewicz) who lives nearby, a postman who escaped from the terror twins some 30 years prior in the film’s opening, in a scene reminiscent of the expository scene in a lot of films but I went with Housebound because I am so very tired. When it’s not aping Friday the 13th, we also get Julek’s recitation of the six “sins” of horror films: curiosity (i.e., “let’s look inside”), disbelief (“it’s just the wind”), overconfidence (“it’s just a haunted house”), splitting up, having sex, and being unattractive, some of which have already been broken and the others follow shortly thereafter. 

Where this film triumphs over the forebears from which it borrows is in the kids themselves, who are all more charming than they have any real right to be, given that these could just as easily have been cardboard cutouts of people. Julek crushes on Zosia almost immediately, and attempts to compliment her in his own awkward way, mostly by comparing her to Sarah Connor, even before she squares off against the unstoppable killing machine(s). Zosia, for her part, finds this endearing, even quoting the T-800 back to him in a sweet moment. Daniel, for all his swaggering and posturing, turns out to be a virgin whose only relationship has been with a woman online, and he’s a secret stoner to boot. There’s also a sweet scene between Bartek and Aniela, in which the two bond over the absurdity of the social expectations placed on them, in which Bartek opens up about how his father is completely blind to his son’s sexual orientation, even when the kid brings home his boyfriends. It’s bittersweet in a way that Friday the 13th knockoffs and imitators rarely get to be; when Jason mows through a group of teenagers, it’s the deaths that are memorable while the characters, other than a few outliers who manage to make an impression, are usually interchangeable. That we the audience know that Aniela and Bartek are doomed lends an air of poignancy to Bartek’s bitterness about the difficulty of being gay in Poland and Aniela’s comiseration. The scene also leads into one of the film’s few genuine shocks, which elevates it by default. 

It’s also worth mentioning that there’s a strange little plot cul-de-sac in which Bartek escapes from the killers and makes his way to a small church, where he asks the priest (Piotr Cyrwus) to call for help. The priest initially claims that the church’s landline is out of service, but when the phone rings, he ditches this pretense and knocks Bartek. When the boy comes to, he’s tied to a chair with a ball gag in his mouth, but when the priest leaves to check and see why the woodchipper turned on by itself, Bartek frees himself and hides in the confessional, his fate left unknown for a pretty long period of time. It’s a scene fraught a truly weird energy where it seems like our buddy is in for some kind of sexual assault, and it feels extremely out of place. Bartek’s treated as kind of an afterthought once the killings begin, and even his fate feels more like a tied-up loose end than a logical plot progression. It also occurs that the situation feels a little bit like the gimp scene in Pulp Fiction, which means that this film really is 100% recycled material. 

It’s also worth noting that the gore here is largely understated. There are some dismemberments and even a decapitation, but on the scale of believability they hover somewhere around “Christian haunted house alternative.” Even in the film’s most cinematic scene, a flashback to Zosia’s father crawling out of the wreckage of his burning car while she watches, not only does the fire look fake, but it doesn’t even look like he’s in that much pain. A few times we see grue drop into frame from offscreen, but the combination of R-rated concept with mostly TV-14 content makes the whole thing feel smaller than the sum of its parts. It’s not bad, but it barely exceeds “fine.” 

*This fact is, and I cannot stress this enough, completely irrelevant. It could have been any MacGuffin, even just like, radiation or something, but for some reason it’s X-Files black oil.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Aquaslash (2020)

Anyone who’s deathly allergic to “bad”-on-purpose, winking-at-the-camera horror novelties like Zombeavers, Sharknado, or Hobo with a Shotgun should beware this review, because I’m about to be a lot kinder to the genre than it likely deserves.

Aquaslash is a retro novelty slasher about a killer waterpark slide that’s rigged with giant blades to chop idiot teens into pieces. The film is built entirely around setting up & executing that singular gore gag, so it has to save all of its bloodbath payoffs for the final 20 minutes. It’s cheap, it’s mean, it’s silly and, at only 70min in length, it barely registers as an actual movie. I still found myself ultimately having a great time with it despite my better judgement, though, which mostly came down to the film’s one saving grace: its central waterslide kill gimmick. The movie may be embarrassingly thin, absurdly insincere, and entirely reliant on one idea, but that idea is so impressively stupid and well-executed that it’s somehow worth the effort it takes to get there.

The setup to this film feels like any other post-Asylum exercise in ironic camp horror, but the follow-through is refreshingly sleazy in that context. Recent graduates from the fictional Valley Hills High School celebrate with a wild party weekend at the (equally goofily named) Wet Valley Water Park. This celebration is explained to be a tradition dating back to the 1980s, which allows the film to play around with Totally 80s™ nostalgia clichés in its 50-minute lead up to the waterslide gore promised in the title. That sounds like a mood-ruiner in the abstract, and it sometimes is when it comes to forced nostalgia signifiers like an abysmally shitty rock cover of Cory Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night.” However, it at least fully embraces the inherent sleaze of 80s slasher in a way that feels shockingly out of place in this kind of winking-at-the-camera novelty.

This is maybe the most enthusiastically committed illustration of Straight Guy™ sexuality I’ve seen since the hair metal music video was king. Young women’s bikini-clad breasts are used as bouncing eye-distractors, cocaine-sniffing surfaces, and splash zones for blacklight neon splooge – anything (within reason) they can get away with doing to titties to fill time before it can pull the trigger on the last-minute gore. That indulgence would be offensive if it weren’t so cornily outdated in a way that felt genuinely retro. As is, it’s overtly sexist the way an old stack of Playboys can be: quaintly so.

Bikini Babes & inane teenage drama are plentiful here; the gore is something you have to work for. The killer waterslide gag itself is truly incredible, though, and I believe the movie is short & harmless enough to get away with the delay. More importantly, it genuinely commits to the grotesque sleaze of the era it’s nostalgic for, as opposed to the Asylum style of retro novelty filmmaking that would rather pave over those unpleasantries with referential jokes & Z-list celebrity stunt casting. The sex is actually vulgar; the practical-effects violence is grotesque. All in all, this might be the best possible version of this kind of “bad”-on-purpose novelty that gives away its one original idea in its trailer & poster. My only major complaint, really, is that it should have been titled Slaughterpark.

-Brandon Ledet

The Last Slumber Party (1988)

One of the most surprising twists of the extremely twisty documentary Shirkers was how much of its narrative involved our home city, New Orleans. For a movie with a main conflict centered in early-90s Singapore, an alarming amount of its third act was filmed around the corner from my house just a couple years ago. This tangent of local tourism was inspired by the dastardly villain of Shirkers, Georges Cardona, having once resided here as a hostile indie cinema saboteur, the same role he would later play in Singapore. However, instead of stealing & hoarding the entirety of a D.I.Y. film production the way he would later leave his mark on Shirkers, Cardona just “lost” a small portion of the feature film he made with buddies in New Orleans. Forming a local film collective called Light House Media Center with his indie cinema peers, Cardona volunteered as the crew’s cinematographer on their “graduate” project: a feature titled The Last Slumber Party. There’s no full-length documentary on The Last Slumber Party’s troubled production like there is for Shirkers, for a couple reasons: Cardona merely sabotaged a small portion of the film’s negative, so, unlike Shirkers, it was still able to be released as a “finished” product. Also unlike with Shirkers, The Last Slumber Party is so uninspired as a microbudget genre picture that it holds practically zero cultural significance. That is, unless (like me) you live in New Orleans and have an embarrassing fondness for dirt-cheap regional slashers.

There aren’t many documentarian glimpses of late-80s New Orleans to be found in The Last Slumber Party. Besides one scene shot in a high school class room, one in a hospital, and one at a nighttime bus stop, most of the film is contained in a single suburban home in Metairie, just west of the city. The house is very Metairie once you get a sense of its aesthetic (i.e. it has no aesthetic) and the lead Final Girl wears an oversized LSU jersey as a nightgown throughout the picture, but otherwise there isn’t much that distinguishes the film as South East Louisiana regional cinema. Mostly, The Last Slumber Party is a sub-Slumber Party Massacre (and maybe even sub-Sorority House Massacre) shot-on-video slasher cheapie that faithfully follows the tropes & structure of its sleepover-massacre genre without a hint of satire. Three high school hotties invite boys & booze into their unchaperoned slumber party, only to have the festivities ruined by a crazed serial killer. Sound at all familiar? In this case, the escaped mental patient/masked murderer is dressed in a surgeon’s costume and played by the film’s director, Stephen Tyler, who you can see interviewed at length in Shirkers about his time as a friend & collaborator of Georges Cardona’s. The film’s one special effect is a prop scalpel he brandishes that squirts blood as he draws it across his victims’ necks, giving the appearance of slit throats (more or less). It’s a very gentle way of murdering young, promiscuous teens, which is actually fairly indicative of the gentle hand the film takes with its by-the-numbers genre beats in general.

The escaped convict vs. wayward teens slasher is spiritually grotesque, exploitative genre territory when it’s played straight (see: Slumber Party Massacre III), which makes it so weird that The Last Slumber Party feels so thoroughly wholesome. Its blood-squirting scalpel rig is about as tame of a source of gore as you can imagine. When teens make-out or shower, the camera shies away from exploiting the opportunity for nudity. The entire production, right down to Tyler’s crazed wide-eyed stare as the killer, feels like friends throwing a party & filming their goof-arounds, as opposed to terrorizing or arousing the audience with flesh & blood. It’s like the suburban Metairie Bro equivalent of a Matt Farley picture in that way – oddly charming in its disinterest in indulging in the nastier impulses of its genre. Also like with Matt Farley, this film’s most entertaining moments are to be found in its overwritten, underperformed dialogue. Who needs tits & gore when you can hear non-professionals deliver lines like “I’m going to the kitchen to munch out,” “What’s this? Stereo telephones?” and “Let’s go rustle up some menfolk!”? The surgeon-mask killer may be oddly wholesome in his de-sexed, goreless murders of both girls & boys, but the weirdly penned dialogue often echoes the seething anger of Sleepaway Camp, The Pit, and other weirdly hostile oddities. Teen lovers combatively refer to each other as “Whore,” “Asshole,” “Stupid Bitch,” and “Queer Bait,” as pet names. They bray “I’m not taking any more of this shit” at top volume into empty rooms. There isn’t an ounce of genuine humanity in that behavior and the “actors” seem to know exactly how silly they’re coming across. The Last Slumber Party is essentially a game of slasher movie dress-up.

If you want a fun, over-the-top slasher with cartoonish characters dancing to early MTV jams, having horned-up pillow fights, and being torn apart in outrageous spectacles of practical effects gore, watch Slumber Party Massacre II. The pleasures of The Last Slumber Party are more muted. Its friends-putting-on-a-show hangout vibe is adorably dorky. It dialogue is absurdly awkward. The logic & length of its final twenty minutes pushes past excruciating dullness to reach something that can only be described as sublimely stupid. Most importantly, it never stops being weird throughout that someone as menacing & bizarre as Georges Cardona was involved with something so innocuous, so wholesome, and frankly, so complete. Every time the camera pans in an interesting way or frames a character in a window or mirror, you’re reminded of the bizarro presence of cinematographer Georges Cardona, who would soon move on to derail the lives of three teen girls in Singapore while his fellow Lighthouse Media “graduates” got jobs on the crew of Sex, Lies, and Videotape. The Last Slumber Party is worth a look as Shirkers supplementary material and as a local relic, but I doubt it has much value outside those contexts. Now excuse me while I go to the kitchen to munch out.

-Brandon Ledet

Black Christmas (1974)

When discussing films that established the standard structure & tropes of the slasher genre, Black Christmas is the one that most often slips through the cracks. Arriving more than a decade after proto-slashers like Psycho & Peeping Tom and just a few years before full-blown American slashers like Halloween & Friday the 13th, the Canuxploitation classic is somewhat of an island as a genre pioneer, disconnected from the movement that followed in its wake. That’s not for lack of cultural clout or stylistic specificity either. If nothing else, the cast of Black Christmas is incredibly stacked for a low-budget horror movie, especially considering Margot Kidder & Olivia Hussey’s central roles as sorority-girl victims. The film is also significant as an early adaptation of the “The call is coming from inside the house!” babysitter-murder urban legend, which would prove to be a significant influence on the genre. All the standard tropes & techniques of the typical slasher are already present too, especially in the first person POV shots of the killer stalking his sexually active teen-girl victims. Black Christmas is as much of a foundational text of the slasher’s DNA as any other that you can cite, yet its status is considered more “cult classic” than household name.

Because this is a genre template that’s since been set in stone, there isn’t going to be much in Black Christmas’s basic premise that surprises anyone who’s seen a horror movie or two since the 1980s. A mysterious killer makes threatening phone calls to a sorority house & methodically offs a series of victims therein. The killer’s identity remains hidden and we often see victims through his weaponized gaze while heavy breathing overpowers the soundtrack. Like with most genre films, Black Christmas’s premise is only interesting in where it deviates from the norm. The Christmastime setting might have been repeated in subsequent slasher franchises like Santa’s Slay & Silent Night Deadly Night, but I’m sure it was a novelty at the time. Black Christmas also deviates from what would eventually become the traditional slasher by resisting devolving into a bodycount film, spending most of its runtime investigating the murder of one sorority house victim instead of letting the corpses pile. Our de facto Final Girl protagonist (Hussey, laying on her posh British accent as thickly as possible) is also far from the naïve virginal cliché that would soon become standard; she spends most of the film refusing to be swayed from her decision to have an abortion. She also cedes a lot of screentime to Kidder’s mean-drunk sorority sister, who would normally be a two-scene archetypal annoyance before being killed off. In as many ways as Black Christmas resembles a typical slasher, it’s also freer than most to defy that genre’s conventions, since they had not yet been fully established.

As interesting as the film’s cultural context might be as an early pioneer of its genre, Black Christmas is just as notable for its in-the-moment effect. The urban legend of the murdered babysitter that ends in the punchline “The calls are coming from inside the house!” may seem too overly familiar to scare horror audiences without subversion or embellishment, but its in-the-moment tension is still horrifically unnerving as told here. The lewd phone calls the college-girl victims receive in Black Christmas are grotesquely unnerving. The killer gargles, shrieks, and moans in sexually explicit menace over the phone while the girls cower in disgust around the receiver. The effect is anguished & inhuman, an unholy assault of aural discomfort. The kills, although infrequent, have an unseemly nastiness to them as well. The killer has no known motivation or weakness, like a Michael Myers prototype. He strangles victims with dry-cleaning bags & phone cords with a cold, uncaring brutality, leaving corpses to rot without purpose or emotion. He hides in closets, attics, and basements – the exact nightmare environments that are relatable enough to feel genuinely threatening but are also oddly otherworldly. The film’s camera work is also off-puttingly crass, stumbling through the sorority house in search of victims as if it were in a blind drunken rage. Its unconformable angles & up-close split diopter framing are nearly as unnerving as the lewd phone calls from the killer – a high bar to clear.

It’s difficult to make sense of Black Christmas’s place in the cultural zeitgeist. Horror nerds hold it in high regard as a foundational text for the slasher genre, but it’s unclear whether that status has amounted to wider recognition & respect. Director Bob Clark’s larger catalog is no help, as attempting to make sense of any career that includes this film, A Christmas Story, Baby Geniuses, and Porky’s only results in pulling out your own hair. Regardless of its larger cultural context, however, Black Christmas remains perfectly potent as an isolated work. The kills are brutal, the soundtrack & camera work even moreso. The characters are more complex than what we’ve been conditioned to expect in this low-budget end of genre fare, resulting in more than just a skyrocketing bodycount. The drive-in era tagline warns “If this picture doesn’t make your skin crawl . . . t’s on TOO TIGHT,” and it’s one of the few films that lives up to that kind of carnival-barker grandstanding. You could likely find a better example of an early slasher pic that colors within the lines set by its genre and there are certainly ones that are more willing to exploit the novelty of their Yuletide setting. There’s just very little chance they’ll offer anything as eerie or as unnerving as a single phone call made in this proto-slasher gem.

-Brandon Ledet

Freaky Farley (2007)

I’ve gotten to the point in my recent Matt Farley obsession where the only movies I’ve watched in the past week have been Motern Media productions. As I slip further & further into his back catalog of microbudget genre films, it’s getting difficult to remember a time where I wasn’t hanging around the kitchens, backyards, and nondescript shopping districts of New England nowhere with Farley and his recurring cast of friends & collaborators. The initial joy I found in the weirdly wholesome titles Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas and Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! did drop slightly when I got to Farley’s “first” signature film, however. Freaky Farley is often reported to be the very first Matt Farley production, but it’s the third title listed in his IMDb credits and Farley himself includes links to two full-length features on YouTube that predate even those (and YouTube) on his own website. It does in some ways feel like an Official Debut, though, one where Farley & friends graduate from staging prankish, small-scale comedies on MiniDV camcorder footage to making a “real,” film fest-ready movie. It also feels like the debut of a since-solidified formula that Farley hadn’t quite yet perfected, just barely missing the sweet-spot of what makes his later works so idiosyncratically enjoyable. Manchvegas & Riverbeast are “horror” movies that do not care about delivering horror, instead functioning as absurdly wholesome hangout films that are occasionally interrupted by monsters & crazed killers. That’s what make them so fun & distinct in comparison with other no-budget “backyard” horror movies, which tend to lean into nastiness & gore in an attempt to transcend their limited means. In that tradition, Freaky Farley is closer to a true horror film, one that does not skimp on blood or kills, which exactly what makes it notably less special than the Motern Media productions that immediately followed.

That’s not to say that Freaky Farley is any less silly than a standard Matt Farley picture. This is a deeply silly movie. Farley stars as the titular killer (duh), a peeping tom who gradually graduates to murderous mayhem. Imprisoned in a mental institution, Farley teases an interviewer (and the audience) with his full backstory, sneering, “You want to figure out how my sick mind works.” The details are absurd, as you might expect, painting a picture of a child driven mad by his overbearing father (Kevin McGee, perhaps Farley’s most committed recurring player; certainly his most muscly), who forces him to pointlessly dig & refill the same backyard hole in perpetuity as punishment for various slights. The repetition of this . . . abuse? drives Farley mad until he becomes widely recognized as a laughable kook, on par with the local witch, the local ninja, and the local “bearded hobo.” His unseemly behavior begins with spying on women through their uncurtained windows as they undress, typical peeping tom behavior. It then graduates to full-on murder spree once his weirdly muscly father pushes him over the edge, devolving the back half of the film into stage blood mayhem that feels jarringly incongruous with Farley’s larger catalog. A series of violent stabbings with a pumpkin carving tool does seem totally at home with the microbudget slasher genre Farley & co. are parodying (or paying homage to, depending on how their tone hits you). However, it feels entirely foreign to the wholesome hangout pictures that would immediately follow in the Farley oeuvre, where murders are a genre inconvenience that get in the way of his oeuvre’s true joys: flatly delivered, overwritten dialogue & novelty song dance parties. What interrupts these murders does feel in-line with Farley’s later works, though; moss-covered woodland monsters called Trogs. Just like the Gospercaps & Riverbeasts that followed in the next two pictures, the Trogs are cheaply costumed beasts that tie the whole picture together in a delightfully inane spectacle, saving Freaky Farley from its own nastier impulses.

The one major advancement Freaky Farley introduced to the Motern Media filmography was a jump from DV camcorder technology to actual 16mm film. The grime & grain of late 70s microbudget slashers is more convincingly staged in this format, especially in sunlit natural environments, pushing Freaky Farley visually closer to the Sleepaway Camp & Friday the 13th sequels territory it reflects in its atypically violent tone. That 16mm visual aesthetic was later put to much better use in Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas, however, where its 70s slasher grime was tempered with the tone of a summer camp slideshow depicting good natured, harmless pranks. It’s that exact good-natured harmlessness that’s missing from Freaky Farley. Without it, the movie feels a little too close in tone with the microbudget horror genre it’s spoofing/lauding. There are still plenty of Farley-specific touches to enjoy here despite that more familiar tone, however. Flatly delivered lines like “I’m suddenly quite ashamed of my nakedness” & “All guys are suckers for a girl in a witch costume” hang in the air with pitch-perfect awkwardness. Similarly, the final cut of each scene drags on just a beat or two longer than it should, subtly affording the film a kind of Tim & Eric anti-humor without fully tipping its hand. Although Farley’s signature novelty songs are sadly infrequent here, there’s an excellent plot-summarizing ballad played over the end credits that make up for some of that lost time. Farley also seems to be genuinely wrestling with condescending parental sentiments like “It’s okay to have dreams, but better to have a regular paycheck” in the film, which offers an interesting self-reflection on his life’s work of making backyard movies about witches, ninjas, and trogs with consistently underwhelming success. I just don’t see much here that wasn’t substantially improved in his next production, Manchvegas, making Freaky Farley one for the Motern Media die-hards only. If you’re new to the Motern catalog, it’s better to instead watch the sweeter, more distinct picture from his two-film 16mm era, the one that immediately followed.

-Brandon Ledet

Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas (2009)

One of the most endearing aspects of Matt Farley’s backyard film productions is how aggressively wholesome they can be. When paying homage to Roger Corman creature features in Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, Farley is far less concerned with gruesome monster mayhem than he is with what is a considerate amount of potato casserole to eat at a backyard wedding and how disputes can be settled with dance parties instead of fisticuffs. His summertime slasher send-up Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas, the Motern Media production that directly precedes Riverbeast, similarly shows very little interest in the violent mayhem promised in its title. The movie doubles the murderous threats presented in Riverbeast, terrorizing its small New England community with both a serial killer who only targets fiancées and a woodland species of yeti-like monsters called Gospercaps. Neither threat is treated with any kind of tonal severity, nor are they allowed to eat up much of Manchvegas’s runtime. The horror genre background setting is a selling point to get eyes on the screen, so that Farley can pursue his true passion with his friends & family (who populate his cast & crew): summertime fun. The slayings are so sparse & delayed that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a microbudget horror film at all. Instead, a weirdly wholesome, D.I.Y. comedy about “good natured, harmless pranks” guide the tone of the film as it gleefully distracts itself with “teen” romances, impromptu basketball games, and frequent visits to the lemonade stand. On the summertime horror spectrum, Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas is much closer to an irreverently spooky episode of The Adventures of Pete & Pete than it is to the nasty violence of a Sleepaway Camp or Friday the 13th sequel. It stubbornly withholds the genre goods, choosing instead to excel as a weirdly wholesome frivolity.

Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas starts with a slideshow of summertime antics befitting of a carefree preteen, but enjoyed instead by three revelers who appear to be in their mid-30s. This juvenile trio is a “gang” known as the Manchvegas Outlaw Society, a small crew of jovial pranksters who have as much fun as they can in the summertime heat before they must deal with the inconvenience of nearby serial killers & woodland monsters (who are essentially 6 foot-tall Ewoks). M.O.S. gleefully operate outside the mechanisms of the film’s true plot, in which an entirely unconnected summertime romance is threatened by both a killer who only targets recently engaged women and the entirely superfluous Gospercap monsters who stalk the woods nearby. Eventually, M.O.S. has to get involved before the killings get out of hand and they save the day through a series of weaponized pranks. For the most part, though, they just live out the slobs vs. snobs routine of a classic 1980s comedy with their most grotesque local nemesis (even going as far as attempting to recruit his butler into their “gang”). It’s very telling that once the crises of widespread deaths wrap up, the harmless pranks & romantic flings continue to their own resolutions, as they were always the film’s main priority anyway. Like with individual entries into the MCU or isolated episodes of a soap opera or pro wrestling show, it’s difficult to assess the value of a specific Matt Farley picture on its own without considering the larger impact of his catalog as a whole. If you have no prior knowledge of Matt Farley’s oeuvre it’s entirely possible that the absurdly wholesome frivolity of Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas will leave you frustrated, especially if you enter it looking for the traditional genre thrills of a microbudget horror film. If you’ve at least seen Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! before, if not any of his other films, it’ll feel like reuniting with old friends you only see once a year at summer camp. It’s just a camp that happens to occasionally be invaded by monsters & murderers.

While Manchvegas isn’t quite the crowning achievement Farley later reached with Riverbeast, it does best that film in a couple notable ways. Most immediately apparent, its visual aesthetic is much more distinct. In the early slideshow montage, I assumed a digital filter was added to afford the film a grainy 1970s look, but Manchvegas was actually shot on 16mm film. It was a choice that played beautifully into both the film’s late-70s slasher influence and its general home movies vibe, but it’s also an absurdly labor-intensive, cost-prohibitive choice I respect Farley & co-conspirator Charles Roxburgh for foolishly undertaking. Besides its more distinctive look, Manchvegas also packs its runtime with far more of Farley’s novelty pop songs (which pay his real-life bills through tens of thousands of Spotify streams). Major examples like a plot-summarizing rap song that plays over the end credits (perhaps my all-time favorite movie trope) and a montage set to a chorus of “I’m catching a killer by faking an engagement, yeah!” stick out as notable examples. What I really love, though, is the way Farley scores entirely inconsequential scenes of him playing basketball with his M.O.S. friends with a song that repeats the phrase “basketball fun, basketball fun” for full, carefree redundancy. Manchvegas also leans into Farley’s regionally specific sensibilities even in its title, which is a local, ironic joke about the glitz & glamor of Manchester, New Hampshire. The entire point of including that joke in the title is likely to grab the attention of New England locals who would be delighted that it was a term that somehow made its way into a movie. It’s the same tactic Farley uses when he adopts a creature feature or slasher genre hook to lure horror audiences into watching a backyard movie about harmless summertime pranks, or when he titles his Motern Media pop songs with search-optimized meme terms that will lead you directly to him even if you’ve never heard of him (and you likely haven’t). If you spend too much time with Farley once he has you on the hook, whether it’s with Manchvegas, Riverbeast, or a forty-second song about diarrhea, you might even sink far enough under his Motern Media spell to be convinced that he’s a certifiable genius. Two films into his catalog, I’m already a goner.

-Brandon Ledet

The Strangers: Prey at Night (2018)

In 2008, which was my senior year of high school, a few friends and I rushed to the local movie theater to see The Strangers. This was during a time where cable television reigned supreme, so the movie’s trailer was constantly playing during commercial breaks. I don’t recall much about the film, since I haven’t seen it since its theatrical release. All I remember is that it was very creepy and starred Liv Tyler. Here we are ten years later, and the film’s sequel, The Strangers: Prey at Night, has been released.

There isn’t a whole lot of buzz surrounding The Strangers: Prey at Night (unlike its predecessor). The only reason I was drawn to see it is because I was in the mood to see a spooky movie, and it was the only horror film in theaters. I didn’t have high expectations going in, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that I really enjoyed a good bit of the film.

Prey at Night follows the basic home-invasion horror movie formula, but instead of a crew of scantily clad women, the “prey” is a family going through a rough patch. Bailee Madison plays a slightly out-of-control teenager (complete with a Ramones t-shirt and a plaid shirt tied around her waist) named Kinsey, who is being sent to boarding school by her parents (Christina Hendricks and Martin Henderson). Before she makes the big move, her parents, along with her brother (Lewis Pullman), take her on a trip to splendid little trailer park campground by a lake. They arrive in the dead of night, and there’s literally no one at the campground because it’s off-season. Within ten minutes of their arrival, the doll-faced killer from the first film gets things started, and the rest of the “Strangers” crew gradually start to appear in the campground.

It’s no surprise that there’s a lot of violent encounters as the family is basically hunted by a crew of bat-shit crazy killers, but there’s something quite special about a few of them. The “Stranger” with a burlap sack mask, who seems to be the father figure of the crew, has an obsession with 80s pop music. During a scene where he is chasing a severely injured Kinsey through the campground, Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” began booming through the theater’s speaker system, and I burst into uncontrollable laughter. I hate being the douchebag in the theater that laughs during horror movies, but I just couldn’t help myself. However, my favorite scene of all was one that involves a stabbing in a pool surrounded with trashy neon lights while Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is blaring through an outdoor sound system. All in all, The Strangers: Prey at Night is just another garbage horror movie, but it’s worth watching for the bloody 80s pop song scenes.

-Britnee Lombas