Episode #124 of The Swampflix Podcast: Black Christmas Blowout w/ We Love to Watch

Welcome to Episode #124 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon is joined by Aaron Armstrong and Pete Moran of the We Love to Watch podcast to discuss all three versions of the Yuletide slasher classic Black Christmas. Enjoy!

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– Brandon Ledet & The We Love to Watch Boys

 

Prom Night (1980)

Is Jamie Lee Curtis the original scream queen? There were multiple generations of femme horror legends who preceded her (including her own mother in Hitchcock’s pivotal proto-slasher Psycho), but the “scream queen” designation specifically feels like a product of the first-wave slashers of the early 80s. Curtis was a central figure in that initial crop of body-count slasher films thanks to her starring role in John Carpenter’s Halloween, which (along with Black Christmas) established many of the tones & tropes now associated with the genre. Previous femme horror legends like Barbara Steele, Karen Black, and Vampira would often be typecast in horror films for their naturally spooky looks, while Jamie Lee Curtis’s generation were better known for their reactions to the horrors of the world – their screams. Curtis was a frequent go-to for the Final Girl Next Door archetype in the earliest crop of formulaic slashers (Halloween, Prom Night, and Terror Train specifically), establishing a scream queen career template that near-future horror actresses like Barbara Crampton, Heather Langenkamp, and Linnea Quigley would later transform into lifelong convention-circuit celebrity. Her mother’s stabbed-in-the-shower scream may have echoed much louder throughout horror history than any of her own on-screen scares, but one isolated fright does not make a Scream Queen. As of last year, Curtis was still extending her Final Girl status in the ongoing Halloween franchisefour decades after its debut. If she’s not the originator, she’s at least the one with the most follow-through.

Prom Night is a significant episode in establishing this scream queen status for Curtis, but only because it faithfully repeats a pattern initiated by Halloween a couple years earlier. If anything, it repeats that pattern a little too faithfully, as its initial gimmick is essentially a mashup of Halloween & Carrie with nothing especially novel to add to either side of the equation. Curtis stars as a suburban high school goody-two-shoes who finds herself the target of two dangerous adversaries: a hot-girl bully who wants to steal her thunder as prom queen (like in Carrie) and a maniacal killer who’s stabbing her friends to ribbons one by one (like in Halloween). When Curtis is gabbing about boys with her more promiscuous friends, walking just out of earshot of reports of an escaped mental-patient maniac, and stumbling blissfully unaware into a cruel prank just as she’s being crowned prom queen, all the audience can think about is Laurie Strode and Carrie White. There are a few key deviations here, to be fair. Instead of the escaped maniac being the assumed killer like Michael Myers, there’s a murder-mystery set-up involving a past wrong when the victims were children – calling into question the masked killer’s identity & motivation. Also, not for nothing, Curtis possesses no telekinetic superpowers here and must survive her bullies’ pranks with good old-fashioned Final Girl purity & wit. Prom Night also tosses in the menacing phone calls from Black Christmas to spice up this Halloween & Carrie mash-up, further emphasizing its adherence to first-wave slasher tradition (and Jamie Lee Curtis’s prominence within that milieu).

Thankfully, Prom Night eventually does come into its own as a unique object & an admirably stylish feat in low-budget filmmaking. Perhaps to no one’s surprise, this turnaround arrives during its titular high school prom dance. Working with a glorious Disco Madness theme, the prom sequence is a pulsating teen dance party where the hormone addled dum-dums we’ve been following all movie show off their best Saturday Night Fever choreography on a light-up dance floor, then file away one at a time to be brutally murdered by the masked killer. In a welcome deviation from a typical first-wave slasher, these kills do not directly correlate with whether or not the teens in question drink, screw, or revel in sin; the kids simply suffer the consequences for a past act of cruelty they’ve kept under wraps since they were tykes. The mysterious executioner sports an unusually glittery ski mask to protect their identity and wields a unique murder weapon—broken mirror shards—instead of the glistening kitchen knife of slasher tradition. Between these gruesome kills and the dance floor glam of the disco prom, Prom Night eventually emerges from its formulaic slasher chrysalis to become its own beautiful specimen of cheap-o grime. Its earliest stretch is guaranteed to test the patience of audiences generally bored with by-the-numbers slasher ritual, but I find that sturdy plot template can be exceptionally useful in providing structure for over-the-top aesthetic & tonal choices like, say, a Disco Madness theme. It also helped build Curtis’s legacy as the genre’s first genuine scream queen; she just also had to be crowned prom queen to get there.

-Brandon Ledet

Psycho III (1986)

The very concept of a sequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s proto-slasher Psycho should be treated with extreme suspicion, especially since it took two whole decades for one to reach the big screen. Psycho wasn’t retrofitted to the slasher franchise model until after distant descendants like the Halloween and Friday the 13th series converted its transgressive psychosexual discomforts into crowd-pleasing genre tropes. There’s something inherently degrading about reducing one of cinema’s most notorious creeps to the same level as a Freddy, Jason, or Chucky, but the decades-late follow-ups to the Hitchcock classic still maintain a semblance of legitimacy thanks to Anthony Perkins’s consistent involvement in the Norman Bates role. If you ask most people who even remember that the Psycho sequels exist, you’ll mostly just hear perplexed relief that “They’re not that bad.” Most of that apologetic defense is reserved for Psycho II, a safe but at least unembarrassing continuation of Norman Bates’s story (by way of borrowing its plot wholesale from a much more daring, satisfying film – William Castle’s Strait Jacket). That’s because Psycho II was only made as an act of brand-management damage control, as Universal was dismayed by a novelized sequel to Psycho that mockingly satirized the burgeoning slasher genre and the studio wanted to reclaim control of the title’s public image. As a result, Psycho II is respectably unremarkable, almost to the point where the public forgets that it exists. If you want something really gutsy that actually takes risks with the Psycho brand, then, you have to look to the third installment.

Unlike its admirably adequate predecessor, Psycho III was a commercial flop – forever banishing all further continuations of the Psycho story to the lowly dregs of television. It’s a shame too, since the film stands as a rare auteurist effort from the one contributor who remained constant in all four proper Psycho pictures: Anthony Perkins. Even when he wasn’t playing Norman Bates, Perkins was forever typecast as a wiry killer pervert thanks to the career-defining role, so it makes sense (however sadly) that he would have to use that very platform to express himself artistically. Psycho III is Perkins’s debut feature as a director, and you can feel his personal attachment to the film & character seeping through the screen in a way that’s missing from the measured image-control conservatism of Psycho II. Perkins fully commits to the leering ultraviolence & self-conflicted sleaze of The Psycho Slasher-Sequel here in a way that feels impressively, uncomfortably driven by his id. It’s the best that most late entries into a slasher franchise could hope for: a unique sensory experience that compensates for following a familiar story template by amplifying the violence, sexuality, and surreality of the genre to the point of total delirium. I’d be hard-pressed to put into words exactly what Perkins was trying to say with this sweaty, over-the-top wet nightmare, but it does feel personal to his own creative id just as much as it expresses his most famous character’s psychosexual torments. It’s a shame, then, that the film tanked at the box office and his only other crack at directing a feature was a forgotten micro-budget cannibal sex comedy (titled Lucky Stiff) just a couple years later. It feels like he was really onto something here, but just didn’t yet have the formal skills to precisely hone in on it.

Although he might not have been fully equipped to express himself as a director, Perkins was at least smart enough to pull inspiration from lofty artistic sources. His most commonly cited inspiration was the Coen Brothers’ own directorial debut Blood Simple, of which Perkins was reported to be a huge fan. Indeed, Psycho III does borrow a neon-lit desert motel aesthetic from that stylish neo-noir, and Perkins even hired composer Carter Burwell for the Psycho III score based on the strength of his work in that picture. The influence that really stands out to me, though, is what Perkins picked up while working with notorious madman Ken Russell on one of my favorite films of all time: Crimes of Passion. Just two years after starring as a poppers-addicted priest with a dildo-shaped murder weapon in Russell’s film (his only acting role between Psycho II & Psycho III), Perkins just happens to deliver an oversexed neon-lit slasher with an almost psychedelic fixation on Catholic guilt here. You can feel Russell’s sweaty fingerprints all over Psycho III’s purple neon motel interiors, which are lined with enough porno magazine collages and Catholic relics to keep a psychoanalyst busy for decades. The film never fully jumps from by-the-numbers slasher to Ken Russell psychedelia, but it does weaponize that influence to emphasize the sleaze, the artificiality, and the inner turmoil of Norman’s tiny corner of Hell in a fascinating way. It likely also helps that the film was penned by screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue the same year he wrote Cronenberg’s The Fly, adding a whole other layer of grotesque sexual mania to an already volatile concoction.

The film opens with a young nun (Mommie Dearest’s Diana Scarwid) declaring “There is no God!” against a black screen, then accidentally killing a fellow sister who attempts to prevent her suicide. Disgraced, she hitchhikes into the desert away from her convent at the mercy of a contemptible drifter (Jeff Fahey), who immediately attempts to forcibly grope her while parked in a rainstorm. These two figures – the suicidal nun and the misogynist drifter – inevitably end up taking residence at the Bates Motel under Norman’s leering eyes. From there, Psycho III gradually transforms into a standard (even if remarkably violent) body-count slasher, but these two visiting strangers stand out amongst the mayhem almost as physical manifestations of Norman’s internal conflicts. In the runaway nun, Norman initially sees another Marion Crane, but eventually comes to know her as a kindred spirit whose religious piousness similarly prevents her from non-violently engaging with her own sexuality & thirst for human connection. The drifter, by contrast, is an exaggeration of Norman’s weakness for misogynist violence; he’s cruel to all women in his seedy orbit in a way the polite motel owner never would be, yet Norman himself is even more of a danger to women despite his air of civility. In tandem, their residence in the motel might as well be them literally occupying the opposing sides of Norman’s brain, which is constantly tearing itself in half in these pictures as he fights back the thoughts & kills of his Mother persona. Their dual intrusion on the story is a heightened, dreamlike manifestation of what’s always eating at Norman from the inside, and it’s fascinating to watch Perkins carve out enough space for that incorporeal conflict to fully play out while also satisfying the more pedestrian criteria of a generic mid-80s slasher.

The least interesting aspects of Psycho III are its dutiful ties to series lore. Clips of the iconic shower scene, echoes of the original’s exact frame compositions, repetition of lines like “We all go a little mad sometimes,” and further complications of who was really Norman’s mother (an issue the sequels can never seem to agree on) all distract from Perkins’s directorial inventiveness by making the picture appear more safe & familiar than it truly is. I’m much more interested in the new, fresh distortions Perkins warps this familiar material with, the exact kind of volatile mutations of the source text that were missing in the personality-deficient Psycho II. A bisexual man, Perkins objectifies both his nun and his drifter in equal leering measure – most notably in a scene where he dresses Jeff Fahey in nothing but a tableside lamp that protrudes skyward directly from the actor’s crotch (as a compromise when Fahey didn’t want to commit to full-frontal nudity). The director also hoists Norman Bates to the level of a Biblically iconic figure – explicitly so in a Ken Russellian sequence where the suicidal nun hallucinates Norman’s Mother persona as the Madonna, referring to the incident as a visitation from The Virgin. The way that religious ecstasy clashes with Earthly “hungers of the flesh” elevates the material above most Psycho descendants & other cheapo slashers by making the conflict out to be an eternal morality crisis instead of merely the immediate terror of a knife-wielding maniac. When the Mother voice in Norman’s head scolds him for failing to overcome his “cheap erotic imagination,” it feels like the movie vocalizing the exact religious-hedonist turmoil that’s been driving it mad the entire runtime.

In a better world, we might have gotten to see Anthony Perkins further pursue these themes & aesthetics in original projects that weren’t dampened by their obligations to the Psycho brand. He even admitted in an interview shortly before his death that he felt as if he were “not up to the task” of directing the film at the time, feeling his “technical knowledge was too limited” to fully express what he was going for. Still, I’ll always be more eager to champion an imperfect expression of pure personal id like this sweaty flop than I would a carefully adequate brand custodian like Psycho II. Even if we never got to see Perkins at the height of his wicked powers as a Coens & Russell-inspired auteur, at least he found a way to use the franchise that defined his career as an opportunity to take a stab at that lofty aspiration.

-Brandon Ledet

Masked Mutilator (2019)

Masked Mutilator checks off a suspiciously high number of my personal-interest boxes for a project that seemingly materialized out of thin air. A no-budget backyard slasher cheapie about mid-90s pro wrestlers and late-2010s podcasting? I’m not sure I didn’t conjure this movie into existence in the middle of a powerful dream, since it’s essentially a jumbled collection of nouns that rattle around in my brain all day anyway. All that’s really missing is a few drag queens & a Xiu Xiu soundtrack. The truth is, though, that the film has been gestating for 25 long years before finally being completed in 2019, so its out-of-thin-air mystique is a total illusion. Initially filmed on 16mm in the mid-90s and eventually bookended with a digital-age frame story in the 2010s (thanks to crowdfunding via IndieGoGo), Masked Mutilator is a fairly typical backyard horror cheapie that’s only made worth discussion because it’s been dislodged from its place in time. There’s almost no way the movie would be half as fascinating if it weren’t for its bizarre multi-decade production “schedule,” and even then it’s not all that remarkable. This is basically Shirkers for Idiots (like me). There’s no denying it has a great hook in its premise and an interesting context as a recovered object, but it’s terminally inessential.

The modern digi-grade frame story involves, as all masterpieces of Le Cinéma do, a podcast recording. Survivors of a fictional 1990s tragedy guest on a true-crime podcast about “Group Home Killings,” recalling the hyper-specific talk radio program “Why Do Boys Kill Their Mothers?” in Psycho IV. This setup is a convenient contextualization of the 16mm footage to follow, which makes up a bulk of the slight 76min runtime. While the podcast conversation stokes gravely serious topics surrounding the abuse of vulnerable teens in group homes, it comes to little surprise that the no-budget slasher plot it’s setting up in flashbacks doesn’t explore these times with any genuine concern or curiosity. An ex-luchador who was blacklisted from his industry for killing an opponent in the ring resurfaces as an unlikely counselor in a group home for teens. His violent past makes him the prime suspect when the teens under his care are picked off one by one at the hands of a muscly killer who wears his old wrestling gear, with his luchador mask now functioning as an executioner’s hood. The mutilated teens are too generic to especially care about (defined by such personality traits as Heavy Metal, Nunchucks, and Horny). The gore is too cheap to be gruesome and too restrained to be fun (despite the film being an early credit for SFX television personality Glenn Hedrick). The identity of the true killer is embarrassingly obvious long before its reveal. The only remarkable aspect of the picture, then, is that it exists – which truly is a feat for any film, to be fair. Movies are hard to make, especially when you’re just hanging around the living room with your friends (as appears to be the case in this instance).

I likely would have been able to overlook the low-energy aimlessness of this doomed project if I had been familiar with the pro wrestlers involved in its production. Brick Bronksy, Jim “The Tank” Dorsey, and Doug Yasinsky weren’t anywhere near my radar despite their involvement with massive promotions like WWF in their heyday. Even so, I was still amused to see these gigantic muscly men crammed into the tiny kitchens & living rooms of this group home location. I also appreciated that the kills were somewhat wrestling-specific, as the luchador executioner character crushes & punches his teen victims to death with brute force (before chopping them up for the incinerator in the film’s sparse moments of genuine gore). With some recognizable pro wrestling personalities, some Matt Farley-level joke writing, and slightly more grotesque violence, this might have been an abandoned relic turned cult classic. Instead, it’s only recommendable for the more hopeless fans of pro wrestling & no-budget slashers, total goners (like myself) who’d have no self-control to avoid it based on the luchador-horror premise – if not going as far as having donated to its crowdfunding campaign to complete it in the fist place. I was never especially thrilled by this recovered artifact from minute to minute, but I still maintained a “Good for them!” attitude towards the filmmakers throughout for having finally completed it, especially since their niche interests apparently overlap so extensively with my own.

-Brandon Ledet

Halloween (2018)

The David Gordon Green-directed, Danny McBride co-written, Blumhouse-produced Halloween is colloquially being framed as the Force Awakens of its respective series. This makes total sense from a franchise storytelling POV. It’s a decades-late sequel to a widely beloved classic that’s meant to reinvigorate interest in its brand by both wiping out the taste of lesser franchise entries of the past in a nostalgic return to basics and setting up a foundational storyline that can excite new fans for future installments, box office willing. However, Halloween (2018)’s context as the Force Awakens of its franchise is ringing true to me in other unexpected, even blasphemous ways. Like with The Force Awakens’s relationship to A New Hope, I found this soft-reboot to be an improvement on the original Halloween film through thoughtful, purposeful revision – although one indebted to nostalgic homage. More enthusiastic appreciators of the John Carpenter original are likely to have a drastically different relationship with Halloween (2018), but that seminal 1978 work has never been a personal favorite of mine. I much prefer the later, weirdo outliers it helped inspire: The Final Destination, Slumber Party Massacre II, Sleepaway Camp, The House on Sorority Row, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, etc. Carpenter’s score for the film and the visual design for serial killer Michael Myers are undeniably iconic, but the overall effect of the barebones horny-teens-hunted-by-a-masked-killer slasher is never as interesting to me as the stranger, more outrageous mutations of the formula that followed. I’m appreciative of Halloween (1978)’s influence on the horror genre, but skeptical of most after-the-fact academic assessments of the film that explain Michael Myers to be the embodiment of pure, senseless Evil as if that were that were a mythology it fully defined. Beyond lip service to philosophical ponderings on the nature of Evil provided by crazed psychologist Dr. Loomis, what’s mostly onscreen in the original Halloween is hot teens being punished for behaving badly (like a decades-late update to the 1950s “road to ruin” pictures where sex = death). The philosophy behind its supposed explorations of Fate & Evil have become part of its lore in the decades since its release, so that this 2018 update to its formula has much more to chew on subtextually, growing from those early seeds of ideas through focused revision.

Halloween (1978) co-writers John Carpenter & Debra Hill rationalized Michael Myers’s targeting of young, wayward teens by explaining him to be the Shape of Evil itself (even billing him as “The Shape” in the end credits), but in the text itself he effectively acts like a typical human serial killer with both prurient & prudish interests. The original sequel to Halloween, Halloween II (1982), attempted to ascribe logic to his targeting of Original Final Girl Lorie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) by making him her brother instead of a random violent stranger. Halloween (2018) ditches that sibling explanation entirely and does more with the Shape of Evil rationalization than what’s enacted in the original. 40 years after the Halloween-night serial murders of the first film, Laurie Strode is a traumatized wreck. She has alienated her family by morbidly obsessing over the murders, still attempting to make sense of Michael Myers’s impulses all these years later, preparing (read: looking forward to) his return for a “final” bout of bloodshed & closure. True crime podcasters, obsessive criminal psychologists, and a few superstitious locals share this belief that a showdown between Michael Meyers & Laurie Strode is Fate – an inevitable, momentous event. This stubborn belief in Fate and the impulse to ascribe meaning to senseless, random cruelty & chaos only leads to more personal tragedy. Laurie Strode, in her need for closure, and others obsessed with understanding the mind of the killer artificially orchestrate this final showdown with a perverse glee, like how Doomsday Preppers not-so-secretly look forward to the Apocalypse instead of approaching it with a healthy sense of dread. When Michael does eventually escape police custody to go on another killing spree (there wouldn’t be much of a movie if he didn’t), he just sort of stumbles around, indiscriminately stabbing at anything. It’s Laurie who insists on reliving her past trauma at his hands because she’s stuck in it, putting her whole family at risk as a result. She gets the supposedly fated showdown with Michael she’s been preparing for at her doomsday compound, but only because she & others obsessed with her case make it happen. In the decades since the original Halloween, people on & off the screen have been attempting to rationalize The Shape’s chaotic, emotionless enacting of Evil. No film has actually made use of that theme in a clear, substantive way as well as Halloween (2018).

The brilliance of this conceit of artificially orchestrated “Fate” is that it allows Halloween to split itself into two separate narratives that satisfy two entirely different appetites. One narrative follows Laurie Strode as she (along with other Michael Myers obsessives) endangers her family in her struggles to process her decades-later Final Girl trauma. The other follows Michael Myers indiscriminately doing his thing, completely unconcerned with the Strode Family drama. It’s in that latter thread where the film has its fun as a nostalgic slasher genre throwback, both gleefully referencing callbacks to previous Halloween films and reliving the horny-teens-punished-for-their-supposed-transgressions formula of the genre Carpenter helped establish (for better or for worse). The payoffs in the Michael Myers murder spree “plot” are much more muted than those of the Strode Family drama. You can only derive so much pleasure from spotting the latex Halloween masks from Season of the Witch or hearing Michael’s original murder spree referenced as “The Babysitter Murders” (the 1978 film’s working title), which I suppose is the less forgiving implication when you refer to this soft-reboot as the series’ Force Awakens. The murders themselves, although they leave a grotesquely contorted body count in their wake, also have a limiting entertainment value; they’re deeply indebted to the usual tones & methods of the traditional slasher. When considered in isolation, the two separate plot threads of Halloween (2018) – the Strode Family drama & the Michael Myers killing spree – feel woefully incomplete. One is too brief in screentime to land with full emotional impact, while the other is too reference-heavy & genre-faithful to feel memorable or distinct. The film’s brilliance lies in the way these separate tracks work in tandem. Cutting between Laurie’s conviction that Michael is staging a showdown with her specifically and Michael’s entirely unconcerned, indiscriminate killing spree in seemingly an entirely different movie creates a fascinating narrative tension. It becomes increasingly tragic as Laurie gets what she wants by artificially forcing the two threads to converge as if it were her Fate.

Like with The Force Awakens, this Halloween sequel/remake/reboot has the impossible task of pleasing everyone, ranging from devotees of the original who want to know how Laurie Strode’s doing 40 years later to first-weekend horror-gobbling teens who just want some jump scares & interesting kills. I believe it did an excellent job of satisfying the most extreme ends of that divide by treating them as separate tracks, then giving them a substantive reason to converge. Fans of the franchise with sky-high standards & hyper-specific requirements of how the Laurie-Michael story should be told (Star Wars-type fans, if you will) are going to be the most difficult to please, since their beloved property has to cede so much screentime to roping in newcomers who needed to be won over for this gamble to work. For me, it’s that exact tension between the original Halloween’s storyline’s need to logically seek closure & the slasher genre’s need to propagate random, senseless violence that makes this film one of the best examples of its franchise – one that has something substantive to say about Fate & Evil in a way the original only motioned towards. And it managed to do so while still playing reverent homage to that seminal work’s iconic sense of style.

-Brandon Ledet

The Horrors of Music Television in Slumber Party Massacre II (1987)

One of the more bizarre aspects of the initial slasher genre boom of the 70s & 80s is that it’s oddly just as prudish as the “road to ruin” exploitation pictures of the 1950s. In the 50s pictures, teens who dared to experiment with sex & drugs, especially girls, would swiftly be met with a violently tragic end as punishment. This formula allowed audiences to both indulge in the sexy, transgressive behavior of rebellious teens and wag a morally righteous finger in their direction once they get their inevitable comeuppance. Although packed with far more nudity & bloodshed, the slasher genre was generally just as condemning of teenage rebellion as the “road to ruin” pictures before it. Its teen characters were chopped down by humanoid monsters like Michael Meyers or Jason Voorhees instead of dying at the hands of syphilis or car crashes, but slashers were just as obsessed with punishing wayward youngsters for straying into the temptations of marijuana & premarital sex. The original entry in the Roger Corman-produced Slumber Party Massacre slasher series both participated in and satirized this time honored tradition. Written by feminist author Rita Mae Brown, 1982’s The Slumber Party Massacre is a straightforward slasher film that still punishes teens for their hedonistic behavior, but delivers its kills by way of an oversized, phallic drill that points to the absurd gender politics of its genre. What’s much more interesting than that subtle subversion in the mechanism of punishment, however, is the way its sequel, 1987’s Slumber Party Massacre II, updated the source of its teenage moral transgressions to something more blatantly modern.

Marijuana & premarital sex had been triggering teen deaths in exploitation pictures dating all the way back to the 1950s, long before slashers added machetes & kitchen knives to the recipe. Slumber Party Massacre II modernized the formula by introducing an entirely new source of teenage transgression, one highly specific to the 1980s: music television. In the five years between the first two Slumber Party Massacre releases, MTV had proven to be a kind of cultural behemoth instead of a flash-in-the-pan novelty. Suddenly, the already sinful business of rock n’ roll had a direct line to youngsters’ television sets, where it could tempt them into darkness with all of the sex, drugs, and partying their little eyes could take in. MTV had come to visually represent the teen rebelliousness that ruined so many fictional lives in exploitation cinema past and the Corman-funded, Deborah Brock-directed team behind Slumber Party Massacre II were smart to adapt that visual language to the slasher genre format. It’s still a film where teen girls are murdered for straying from their parents’ protection to experiment with sex & alcohol. The difference is that the mechanism used to punish them is not a scary man in a mask wielding a comically oversized kitchen utensil. Instead, the victims in Slumber Party Massacre II are hunted by a personified representation of MTV culture. In its own absurdist way, the film literalizes parents’ fears about rock n’ roll invading their homes to destroy their children’s lives. Better yet, it does so with a cartoonish slapstick energy usually reserved for a Looney Tunes short that keeps the mood consistently light instead of browbeating the audience for indulging in its sex & fantasy violence.

The youngest survivor of the titular slaying in the first Slumber Party Massacre, Courtney, is now high school age, living alone with an overly stressed mother who shares her anxieties over her traumatic past. Instead of spending her birthday weekend visiting her sister (who also survived the massacre) in the hospital, Courtney convinces her mother to allow her to go on an unsupervised road trip with her small group of close friends. All four girls in this crew are members of a jangly, Go-Gos reminiscent garage band and plan to spend the weekend away practicing new songs. They, of course, also plan to drink excessively & sleep with hot boys. In the days leading up to this getaway, Courtney has recurring nightmares featuring a demon in a leather jacket, billed simply as The Driller Killer, who warns her not to have sex on the trip or else. Of course, being a teenager, Courtney inevitably ignores this warning and deliberately sheds her virginity with her biggest crush. The exact second Courtney has sex for the first time, the transgression gives birth to the rock n’ roll demon, who escapes from her nightmares and hunts down every one of her friends & bandmates with a giant, guitar-shaped drill. The physical manifestation of MTV culture, The Driller Killer is dressed like Andrew Dice Clay, except with a vampire collar on his biker jacket. Before drilling each teen dead with his unignorably phallic guitar, he suggestively delivers rock n’ roll one-liners like “I can’t get no satisfaction,” & “C’mon baby, light my fire.” He also had a rock n’ roller’s sense of open-ended sexuality, applying his drill to victims of all genders instead of reserving it just for the girls, like in the first film. The only way this sex demon could’ve been more MTV is if his name was Downtown Julie Brown.

Not all of Slumber Party Massacre‘s MTV horrors rest on The Driller Killer’s leather clad shoulders. Besides its two music video tangents highlighting Courtney’s garage band, the film generally adapts music video language to its visual style. Drastic comic book angles, fog machines, and intensely colored lights shape a lot of the aesthetic of its nightmare sequences & third act slayings. The film’s sets, which include empty condo developments & construction sites, also recall early MTV-rotated rock videos that were cheaply, rapidly produced to feed the young channel’s bottomless need for content. The teen girls in the film are highly aware of this then-modern medium too. Minor scream queen Heidi Kozak, who plays the band’s drummer, exclaims in a pivotal scene, “Someday we’re going to be in movies and rock videos and everything, because my song is going to be a hit,” and, more directly, “MTV, here we come!” This declaration is promptly followed by the girls stripping down to their underwear (or less) and erupting into a dance party/pillow fight that could easily pass for a mid-80s hair metal video if it weren’t for all the nudity. The sequence is often viewed from the television’s POV, as if the music emanating from it was directly influencing their drunken behavior, enticing them to commit sins that will immediately get them killed. The broadcasted film soundtrack they’re dancing to is also none other than the Corman-produced classic Rock n’ Roll High School, which had its own significant impact on music video culture before MTV ever existed.

Slumber Party Massacre II can sometimes be a nihilistically violent exploitation piece in the way that all slashers are, but mostly it just mirrors the light-headed inanity of pop music as a medium. Song lyrics like, “I wanna be your Tokyo convertible,” and scenes like the dance party/pillow fight keep the tone goofy & charmingly absurd. Even the film’s rock n’ roll demon, although a murderous creep, never feels like the kind of nightmarish threat that usually terrorizes wayward teens in this genre. The film not only modernizes the slasher formula by shaking off its 1950s cobwebs and updating its teen transgressions with a borrowed MTV flavor; it also makes its violent downfall seem just as fun & enticing as the sins that trigger it. Given the choice to either live a chaste life or die by the hands of MTV, it’s likely a lot of mid-80s teens would’ve eagerly chosen death, which feels like a different sentiment entirely from the third act downfalls of the “road to ruin” era of exploitation cinema. It’s funny that it had to return to the demonized image of a 1950s rock n’ roller to free itself from that era’s moralist trappings.

-Brandon Ledet

Offerings (1989)

It seems silly to seek out a decades-old, cheaply made slasher just to saddle it with a negative review, but I couldn’t help but be disappointed by the unassuming, disappointingly slight feature Offerings. Anytime I watch one of these decades-old cheapies I’m always rooting for the film to succeed, trying to find something to celebrate. Offerings is the worst kind of disappointment in that way. It promises a lot very early on in terms of its potential as light, bloody entertainment, then punishes you for holding out hope by devolving into a painfully dull waste of time. And now I find myself in the unseemly business of digging a film up just to bury it all over again.

Part of what makes Offerings such a disappointment is its dedication to skating by as a blatant Halloween knockoff. We start with a very young child whose strange, anti-social, serial killer-esque behavior is blamed on his absent, abusive father by a mother who hates the sight of him. He’s similarly tormented & ostracized by neighborhood bullies his age who take a lighthearted prank too far by startling him into falling down a well. Ten years later, the child is a full grown homicidal maniac, with intense facial scarring from the incident, who breaks out of a mental institution to hunt down his childhood tormentors. Everything else is more or less a carbon copy of Michael Myers lore, right down to a score John Carpenter could’ve easily won a lawsuit over.

What’s frustrating about Offerings is that it shows flashes of inspiration that reach far beyond its ultimate Halloween Lite results. The hook of its title, for instance, is that the crazed, vengeful killer torments his bullies by sending them pieces of his victims as “gifts”: a finger, an ear, “sausage” on a pizza, etc. Also, while it’s far short of the meta-commentary of films like New Nightmare or Cabin in the Woods, the film does playfully hint to a kind of horror film self-awareness that could’ve been interesting if pushed a further. While watching TV, one character asks, “How come people in these horror movies always do such stupid things?” In a similar scene, a victim is hung to death outside a living room window while his friend eats popcorn, blissfully unaware. In my favorite bit, the killer ties his first victim down in a garage and sets up various power tools to do the deed, but they fail to deliver due to dead batteries or too-short power chords, so he uses a manually-cranked vice instead.

If Offerings stuck closer to the novelty of its titular premise or fully committed to the meta-comedy of its stray self-aware gags it’d be the exact kind of forgotten horror cheapies I usually strive to champion. As is, the film feels like a dispiriting waste of potential. About halfway through its runtime the killer stops tormenting a single set of “teens” in their confined space setting and the film devolves into an insufferably dull police procedural about tracking the monster down. As for the “teens” themselves, that ten year time jump must’ve been the roughest decade on record; they go from Little Rascals to Little Methadone Clinic in the blink of an eye.

Ultimately, Offerings feels like an excuse for that group of goofballs to down a few beers and hang out with the result of filming a horror movie in the process being treated as an afterthought. Sometimes that kind of hangout cheapie can be effortlessly charming, like with the recent Troma release B.C. Butcher. Sometimes, it can feel like a sloppy, shot-for-its-own-sake home movie, like with Desperate Teenage Lovedolls. Offerings firmly fits in that latter category, but it’s all the more frustrating for occasionally threatening to break free from its Halloween cover version roots and actually put forth a noticeable, praiseworthy effort. God forbid.

-Brandon Ledet

The House on Sorority Row (1983)

If you watch one too many 80s slashers in a row, it’s easy to convince yourself that you know exactly what to expect from every entry in the genre. For every weirdo outlier like Tourist Trap or Slumber Party Massacre II, there’s a thousand generic, by-the-books slashers waiting to lull you into a false sense of complacency. That over-confidence of being a know-it-all audience is exactly what allowed me to be surprised & delighted by the weird twists & turns of the off-kilter slasher The House on Sorority Row. On the surface, the film seems like it’s poised to play exactly like any sorority house slasher you can name, from Sorority House Massacre to the genre spoof in the opening scene of De Palma’s Blow Out. Pulling a third act turn reminiscent of the one in last year’s surprise delight The Boy, however, The House on Sorority Row winds up proudly boasting a more inventive, proudly anarchic spirit than it initially lets on.

A group of sorority sisters throw themselves an unsanctioned graduation party, despite the protests of their head mistress. To get back at the old lady for raining on their drunken parade, the girls stage an elaborate prank that gets out of hand and results in an accidental murder. As there’s only minutes to spare before guests arrive at their planned graduation party, the girls hastily decide to hide the dead body in their algae-covered swimming pool. Long story short, the body disappears from the pool and the girls start dropping off one by one in standard slasher fashion while blissfully unaware partygoers rage around them. The plot you’d expect from this kind of sorority-set slasher winds down about a half hour prior to the end credits, when our final girl finds herself faced with an entirely new, almost otherworldly challenge. Drugged, hallucinating, and used to bait the film’s mysterious killer, her distorted POV affords the film a surreal, over the top conclusion that has nothing to do with the sorority slasher premise, but definitely leaves a memorable impression on the audience.

The memorability of The House on Sorority Row’s horrors is twofold. In its earlier, standard slasher moments, the novelty of an (almost) entirely female cast and the unique murder weapon of a sharp-handled walking cane are enough to set it apart from its closest genre peers. In its much weirder concluding half hour, green screen hallucinations of dissected bodies, spinning objects, creepy clown dolls, and old world gynecology make it out to be even more of an outlier than initially expected. Even without its third act weirdness, though, The House on Sorority Row is an artfully made, carefully considered slasher. Moments like an opening credits dress-up montage or the camera searching for the seven guilty girls’ worried faces at their out of control party or a scene transition from a fired gun to a popped champagne cork all suggest a heightened kind of carefully-considered filmmaking craft that at least hints that there might be something interesting coming down the line for those patient enough to wait for it.

Unfortunately, there is one essential slasher film element lacking here: kills. One of the first post-prank kills is a vicious throat slitting that sets a very chilling tone the film never really lives up to. If it had remained consistent in the brutality & variety of its kills in that way, I have no doubt The House on Sorority Row would be remembered as one of the all-time greats. It’s still memorably distinct as is, though, well worth seeking out for anyone who feels like they’ve already seen all of the worthwhile slashers out there and need to watch something that explores memorably distinct territory within the genre’s often too-strict borders.

-Brandon Ledet

The Funhouse (1981) as an Ideal, Forgotten Midpoint Between Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacres (1974, 1986)

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We’ve been scratching our heads all month trying to figure out why Tobe Hooper’s grimy carnival slasher The Funhouse isn’t more of a household name. One of my theories was that Hooper had already changed the game years earlier with his weirdo slasher opus The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, inspiring so many similar oddball horror entries in its wake (Tourist Trap, for instance) that The Funhouse had a little too much company to stand out on its own as anything radical or idiosyncratic. By the time of its release the Tobe Hooper grime of The Funhouse was just a drop in really strange, hideously dirty bucket. Maybe that’s why Hooper’s next return to the slasher genre in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 strived for a much campier, more colorful aesthetic than the original. It was a decision that (intentionally) pissed off a lot of fans at the time of its release, but led to a much more infamous work that’s still regularly discussed today, despite The Funhouse being the better movie overall.

The Funhouse was released more or less at the temporal midpoint between Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre films, which were separated by twelve years and a few wildly varied experiments from the director. 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre details a backwoods Texas family of chainsaw-wielding cannibals with a weird collection of skeleton art & Ed Gein-inspired modes of improving their self image. 1986’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 follows a very similar narrative structure, sometimes recreating exact scenes from the original, but punches them up with hideously shrill humor, jaw-dropping gore effects, and color-soaked camp spectacle. The Funhouse splits the difference, offering a more colorfully surreal setting for its cold-blooded violence than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre without aiming for the full-goof absurdism of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.

Hooper’s career is wildly chaotic, haunted by ghosts, Martian invaders, sexy space vampires, and all kinds of other horror genre eccentricities that are worlds away from standard slasher fare. The Funhouse serves as a great, typifying middle ground for his difficult to pinpoint work that somehow captured the spirit of both of his violently disparate Texas Chainsaw Massacre films, while still pointing to the otherworldly quality of his non-slasher work. It doesn’t ever bring in the supernatural funhouse goofery of Ghoulies II, but The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 also remains grounded in the real world and that film stands as a strange slasher genre outlier in its own right.

It makes total sense that the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre film would have the biggest cultural impact in this trio. Not only was it the earliest & most financially successful title of the bunch, its humans-as-meat slaughterhouse horror is also more darkly humorous than it’s often given credit for. I do believe The Funhouse deserves a closer look than that film’s sequel, though. The gory kills and the cartoon energy of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 have earned it an easy cult following in recent years (not to mention that it seemingly laid out the blueprint for Rob Zombie’s entire directorial career), but I think The Funhouse is more deserving of the attention. Instead of punching up and altering his original outlier slasher like in the sequel, Hooper found new, colorfully surreal ways to repurpose The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s energy in The Funhouse that should be regularly celebrated, but is instead largely forgotten. A month after watching it for the first time, I still can’t pinpoint exactly why.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, Tobe Hooper’s grimy carnival slasher The Funhouse, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this comparison of its carnival-setting horrors with those of Ghoulies II (1988), and last week’s look at its unexpected companion in Tourist Trap (1978).

-Brandon Ledet

The Final Terror (1983)

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The general rules & confines of the slasher genre are so obvious & so rigid that they can be easily & recognizably spoofed in genre send-ups like The Cabin in the Woods & last year’s The Final Girls with no explanation needed. Like those titles, The Final Terror similarly seems dedicated to collecting & mimicking every slasher cliché imaginable, but it does so as a generic participant in genre tedium instead of as a self-aware parody. The film includes an escaped mental patient, a group of horny stoner young’ns being hunted in the woods, a killer with mommy issues, out-of-towners being punished for ignoring local superstitions, you name it. Usually, when a non-satirical slasher gathers this many influences from titles like Friday the 13th & Sleepaway Camp in one place, they have to rely on the brutality & inventiveness of their kills to stand out as memorable in any particular way. Oddly enough, The Final Terror is near-bloodless, yet still very nearly distinguishes as a memorable work despite its wholehearted commitment to genre cliché. There’s a grimy, misshapen quality to the film that makes it strikingly odd, almost to the point of recommendation. Almost.

The Final Terror makes its requisite excuses to get its young, vulnerable people to the woods (a contrivance that hasn’t changed much in the three decades since, if you consider recent examples like Blair Witch) through a long-winded setup for an indistinct camping trip. The only personality that stands out at as at all memorable is the local guide to the terrain, a seething ball of rage bus driver & local guide named Eggar, who seems to be infected with whatever anger bug maddened the campers of Sleepaway Camp. Eggar yells as his customers about anything & everything: smoking weed, having girlfriends, telling scary stories by the campfire. Teen stuff. The movie begins relatively body-free until two campers are murdered while/for boinking, another genre hallmark, and it becomes almost too obvious that Eggar would be the killer (shown onscreen only as a disembodied arm & knife). That is, until it becomes clear just how much The Final Terror is dedicated to ripping off the twists & turns of the most famous film in its genre. If you’re looking for a slasher with any semblance of narrative subversion or mystery, this is not the place to start. For all intents & purposes you’ve already seen this film before, maybe even many times over.

It’s hard to say that anyone has actually seen The Final Terror, though, to be honest, since even its best VHS-quality transfers are drowned in fuzzed out, standard definition darkness. One potential victim complains while being hunted in the nighttime woods, “I can’t see a thing!” and I couldn’t help but wholeheartedly agree. Then there’s the curious case of the title, which makes absolutely no sense given the film’s nature as the first and last entry in its non-franchise, only adding to its overall indistinct nature. A more honest title might’ve been Corpsethrower, given how more of the onscreen scares consisted of already-dead bodies suddenly entering the frame than actual for-the-camera kills.

Still, despite all of its dedication to genre-faithful tedium, I found myself rooting for The Final Terror to succeed. There’s just too many weird details in the film for it not to stand out as something worth championing. A character starts to fight back & play war games with the killer while tripping on mushrooms & mumbling about Vietnam. He explains, “If you want to survive this, you’re gonna have to start looking & thinking like the forest” and convinces his fellow campers/victims to don Rambo camouflage & crawl through the mud. I also enjoyed the way the film pulls its campers away from the relative safety of their cabins into the expanse of the wilderness, as well as stray details like its Psycho-esque crossdressing, its jars full of body parts, the presence of a pre-fame Darryl Hannah, and a particularly shrill rendition of “Three Blind Mice.” All that was missing to make the film recommendable were some brutal and memorable kills.

The opening & closing murders of The Final Terror are achieved through crude booby traps, one even made of soup can lids & tree branches. If the camping-themed Rube Goldberg kills were more frequent, bloody, and ridiculous, there’s no doubt that The Final Terror would stand as a cult favorite for greedy slasher lovers everywhere. It already had a (less grotesque) Cannibal Holocaust quality to its grime & shoddiness. It already knew how to mimic genre standards like Friday the 13th & Sleepaway Camp (perhaps to the point of its own detriment). It just needed to follow through on the promise of its homemade murder traps to escape its lowly status as a cookie cutter slasher with bad lighting and an indistinct title.

-Brandon Ledet