I love October. The weather, the leaves changing color, the candy, the Halloween decorations…
…and the movies. Goddamn, you get to be a horror fan without anyone looking at you like you’re some bugged out dude sitting by the playground. For one month, fright fans are granted carte blanche because it’s “in the spirit of the season” (unless you’re watching the GUINEA PIG films, in which case you’re still just a “weirdo”).
In short, October is badass.
When I kept a personal blog, I used to watch a horror movie each day in October and then write about them at length, just like everyone else who isn’t the Osiris of this Horror Shit, Brian Collins of HMAD. Before that, I’d usually just jot down a list of the films I watched and on what day (fuck your judgement, I like lists). Now I bring this tradition to Very Aware, only I’ve put a bit of a spin on it.
Thirty double features in October — that’s what I’m going to bring you. The dual bills of horror, cult, sci-fi or exploitation that I’m using to ring in my favorite month. Most of these pieces will be quick (a meaty paragraph or so) while others will be full-blown reviews. It all depends on how much I love (or hate) the films.
All of this leads up to my favorite day of the year: the Exhumed Films 24-Hour Horrorthon (October 27th and 28th); an entire day where, from noon on Saturday to noon on Sunday, 35 or 16mm prints of great (or horrifyingly awful…depending on the group’s mood) genre films from the 60s, 70s and 80s are projected nonstop with trailers, shorts and other oddities in between. It’s all courtesy of the fine folks in Exhumed Films (Dan Fraga, Jesse Nelson, Harry Guerro and Joseph Gervasi), who have been putting on unbelievable double features for the past fifteen years, and the 24-Hour Thon for five.
Features seven and eight find me enjoying the “rule of three” and gasping at the horror of mama’s boys…
Feature #7 – 10/7/12 – Beware the Rule of Threes! (HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH  & LEATHERFACE: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III )
Franchises usually live or die by the third installment. Many argue that GOLDFINGER, the third 007 film from 1964, is the best of the bunch and, even if people disagree with that sentiment, they can at least concur that it’s the moment where the films became iconic in both the minds of cineastes and the general public alike. JAWS 3, on the other hand, is universally recognized as the moment the famous franchise “jumped the shark” (I’m sorry, I couldn’t help myself). But both the HALLOWEEN and the TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE franchises’ third installments are watershed moments in their respective series for very different reasons.
Most horror fans already know the reasoning behind Michael Myers’ absence in HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH. John Carpenter has publicly said that he basically wrote HALLOWEEN II for the paycheck, as there’s the now infamous story where, after Universal offered him the job, he looked and saw he didn’t have any beer left in the fridge and quickly took the offer. The horror icon has even gone as far as admitting that he hates the reveal of Laurie being Michael Myers’ sister (uh…spoiler?), thus undermining Myers’ role as “pure evil” within the original and relegating him to being simply a madman with a familial grudge. After HALLOWEEN II, the director had an idea and (not too surprisingly, considering the financial success of both HALLOWEENs), Universal gobbled it up. Only Carpenter wanted to jettison the Shatner masked killer for something else; a recurring yearly serial where the franchise told a new and unique story that stood alone, not tied to any existing mythology or characters.
SEASON OF THE WITCH strays very far from the “slasher film formula” the series had became the granddaddy of. SEASON follows the story of Dr. Dan Challis, a local California M.D. who just wants to drink his beer and love the women in his life, and whose world is ultimately upended when an old shopkeeper is wheeled into the ER and dies, whispering threats of “they’ll kill us all”. Dr. Challis can’t help but want to know the truth behind the man’s words and, after teaming up with Ellie Grimbridge, the shopkeeper’s lovely daughter, the two go on a quest to find out just what happened to the man, and why he was clutching a latex Halloween mask on his death bed. Little do they know, they will uncover a plot to kill the world’s children using said masks, subliminal messages and Stonehenge (yes, that Stonehenge).
Carpenter (who is credited with producing the film as well as co-writing the score) didn’t just stop at the pre-production stage. The master of horror’s touch can be felt throughout the entirety of SEASON OF THE WITCH, from the sly in-jokes for fans (the original film plays during a “Horror Thon” on TV) to the casting of Man God Tom Atkins. Add on the eerie synth music (that really plays like a mash-up of “greatest hits” from Carpenter’s previous films) and the lens flare loving photography from Dean Cundey, and you’d swear that Carpenter directed the movie himself.
And while we’re on the subject of Tom Atkins, lets take a moment to admire the audacity of having the pock marked, then forty-six year old character actor be the star of what would turn out to be the riskiest endeavor the franchise would ever take. Atkins is not Hollywood handsome, appearing more like an average Joe who you’d meet in a hardware store or the corner dive bar come quitting time. But that doesn’t stop Atkins from seducing almost every female in the film (seriously, I think there’s only one he didn’t at least flirt with [Marge Guttman], and that’s only because she was in too much of a huff to really stop and give Atkins a proper once over). His boozing Dr. Challis even makes it with poor, fatherless Ellie while the two pose as a husband and wife mask-buying duo at a local motel:
Dr. Challis: Maybe I ought to get another room.
Ellie: That would look sort of suspicious, wouldn’t it?
Dr. Challis: What I mean is: if it’d make you more comfortable. I can sleep in the car.
It’d be a lot better than this floor, anyway.
Ellie: Where do you want to sleep, Dr. Challis?
Dr. Challis: [using his best man gaze] That’s a dumb question, Ms. Grimbridge.
Make out session…engage!
The utterly ludicrous nature of the plot and the sexualized Brawny Man lead almost feel jokey at times, but it’s all played so straight-faced that any viewer with half a sense of humor won’t care at all. It’s obvious that both Carpenter and writer/director Tommy Lee Wallace (who would go on to direct FRIGHT NIGHT II, Stephen King’s IT and another Carpenter sequel in VAMPIRES: LOS MUERTOS) aren’t here to scare the crap out of you. They’d rather poke fun at the horror genre and even Carpenter’s own work (Atkins knack with the ladies HAS to be a call-back to his effortless bedding of Jamie Lee Curtis in THE FOG). It all adds up to a film that is uniquely its own animal and, for that reason, viewers rejected it upon release in 1983. They wanted more Michael, more Laurie Strode, and more Donald Pleasance acting drunkenly insane. A Bond villain plot involving Halloween masks and the euthanasia of the world’s children? No thanks.
LEATHERFACE, on the other hand, can’t be mistaken for anything but a TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE movie. Directed by Jeff Burr (who also helmed the awesome anthology FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM and the horrid STEPFATHER II) the movie feels almost like a reboot of the original than it does a straight sequel. From the opening crawl, the film even seems to ignore that Tobe Hooper’s TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART II even exists.
In many ways, this isn’t a bad thing. By ditching the tongue-in-cheek black humor of the sequel and opting for a more brutal, bone-crunching approach, LEATHERFACE feels like the ULTIMATE TEXAS CHAINSAW movie. Hell, there’s barely even a story (the scraps here are credited to ‘80s splatter novelist David J. Schow). Following the seemingly endless opening narration, we’re driving through Texas with siblings Ryan and Michele as they make their way from California to Florida in order to drop a car off to their father. After stopping at a seemingly desolate gas station (which feels ripped right out of Wes Craven’s THE HILLS HAVE EYES), the two are chased and shot at by the madman clerk only to crash their car and run afoul of the infamous Sawyer clan. And once “Junior” shows up with his lady-skin face and his oversized chainsaw, the fun really begins.
LEATHERFACE starts the TEXAS CHAINSAW trend of, instead of making a stand-alone story or build on the previous’ films mythology, the production team simply remakes the film that came before. Really, if I were doing my film pairings correctly, I would have chosen TEXAS CHAINSAW PART II for this double feature, as it and HALLOWEEN III are both films that are beloved by diehard fans (if it weren’t for PART II, we’d never have Bill Moseley’s “Chop Top”), but forgotten by most everyone else.
TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE NEXT GENERATION (the film that follows LEATHERFACE) is an abomination that features Renee Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey in early roles and simply served up more kids (on the way to prom) to the Sawyers via vehicular mishap. Platinum Dunes’ remake copied the original’s formula near beat for beat not once, but TWICE (including a poor attempt at the infamous “dinner scene” in prequel, TEXAS CHAINSAW: THE BEGINNING, where R. Lee Ermey gives quite the sermon). Really, TEXAS CHAINSAW exists as one of the few film franchises whose mythology is so good (or, at least, strikes a primal chord in people) that it seems content simply to repeat itself time and again.
Arguably, you could make this case for just about any of the major slasher franchises, save for maybe A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. After gaining his trademark hockey mask in PART III (ahem), FRIDAY THE 13th doesn’t do anything significant with Jason Voorhees. Yes, they introduce Tommy Jarvis in THE FINAL CHAPTER, but he’s forgotten by the time we get to MANHATTAN (and the less said about JASON GOES TO HELL the better). Once SEASON OF THE WITCH bombed, HALLOWEEN kept reinventing Michael Myers so many times (is he part of a Druid cult? Is that Satan in PART FIVE? Josh Hartnett is Laurie’s son?) that it’s damn near impossible to keep track of what mythology we’re even supposed to latch onto.
Maybe that’s the key to the TEXAS CHAINSAW franchise’s staying power: the ability to recycle itself and still feel fresh. Ken Foree is definitely a welcome presence (as he is in most movies) as a kind of militant lumberjack survivalist. And seeing a young Viggo Mortensen show Leatherface’s daughter (raperaperaperaperape…) how to kill a man using a rigged up sledgehammer trap Kevin McCallister would be proud of is kind of fun. Once the ending explodes into a flurry of violence, there is plenty for gore hounds to love, as Schow and Burr not only forget PART 2 exists, they start wiping out characters form the original.
I wish there was more to say about LEATHERFACE, but that’s really it – a bare bones sequel that feels more in line with the original’s air of menace and primal rage. But where the first TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE left much of the bloodletting to the audience member’s imagination, LEATHERFACE all but sprays the front row with viscera. A nihilistic bit of gritty, grimy thrills, LEATHERFACE probably won’t do much for those outside of the TEXAS CHAINSAW fan base, but for the devoted it’s a nice trip back to the hellish ride of 1974.
Feature #8 – 10/8/12 – Mama’s Boys Are the Ones to Fear in These Exploitation Oddities! (THE BABY  & REDNECK COUNTY RAPE )
It’s a wonder THE BABY exists at all. Even more insane is the fact that Ted Post, the man who directed HANG ‘EM HIGH, MAGNUM FORCE and BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (as well as episodes for just about every iconic 60s TV show you can think of), was behind the camera for its production.
THE BABY kind of defies classification beyond “exploitation”. A strange mix of perverted melodrama and left-field horror, it chronicles Mrs. Wadsworth and her two grown daughters, who seem to live a simple life. One day, Ann Gentry, a social worker “fascinated by the Wadsworth case”, shows up at their door, claiming to be their new worker. After a brief conversation about Mrs. Wadsworth’s unique “Baby”, Gentry is allowed to meet him…
…and is shocked to find a grown man, dressed in a diapers and a bib, sleeping in a crib. It’s a great set-up. Even if you knew nothing about the movie, the opening scene is so well written that you can’t help but be sucked into the moment. And that’s what’s great about THE BABY. While it is undoubtedly a “drive-in” movie, it never really feels like one (until the violent climax, of course). Post and his actors are playing everything completely straight, as if seeing a grown man in a bonnet being fed chocolate pudding is an everyday occurrence for all of us.
And really…it is (in 2011, I mean). Back in 1973, the attitude and awareness about mental handicaps didn’t exist as it does today. That’s going to be the tough thing to swallow for most modern audiences watching this movie. You look at “Baby” now (he’s given no other name in the film) and simply go, “he’s mentally handicapped. He needs help”. But back then, “help” was merely institutionalizing him, and one would think that his mother is simply caring for the man to try and keep her “Baby” out of the system.
But that’d be too easy. Instead there’s something much more sinister going on in the Wadsworth home. Something illustrated with great effect by a single scene…
Mrs. Wadsworth and the girls hire a babysitter to look after “Baby” for one night. But before they have the chance to leave, “Baby” latches onto the babysitter’s breast, attempting to feed himself while she is simply spending her first moment alone with him to try and “get to know the boy”. Before the babysitter can pry “Baby” off of her nipple, Mrs. Wadsworth and the girls attack the girl, savagely beating her until she’s almost unconscious. It’s an incredibly disturbing scene, one that rattled me while I watched it unfold. Post unflinchingly captures every blow landed on the poor babysitter’s face (which is broken and bloody by the end of the conflict). Sadly, nothing that follows comes close to matching the scene’s brutality and unsettling imagery (though a scene with a cattle prod comes close).
There are some twists and turns that follow, as it seems the Wadsworths aren’t the only ones with ulterior motives. Ms. Gentry recently lost her husband, and she now plans to try and take “Baby” away from his evil mother and sisters. How that loss ties into the plot gives the film a satisfying, if almost too “shocking” ending.
There’s an almost fetishistic nature with which Post treats his titular subject. From the implied sexual overtones and incestuous nature of the girls and their relationship with “Baby” (though the film kind of cops out when it’s revealed that all of Mrs. Wadsworth’s children came from different fathers), to the real reason he is so coveted by Ms. Gentry. The movie makes no bones about its want to titillate and again, for most moviegoers, this is going to be too much to take. Post wants to make you squirm using not just violence, but by adding a sexualized nature to it all.
While this all sounds like out and out schlock on the page, it really isn’t. Ted Post is too accomplished a filmmaker to allow the film to slide into sheer sensationalism. There’s a classy feel he gives to the insanity, and it makes the film that much more essential to any cult film fan’s canon. THE BABY is a wonderfully twisted and batshit crazy flick that could’ve only been made in the 70s. While we try to brag about how “daring” and “open” modern filmmakers are, Post created a film 38 years ago that puts nearly everything considered “risque” by today’s standards to shame. I whole-heartedly recommend any adventurous film watcher to seek the movie out, post haste.
REDNECK COUNTY RAPE, however, is going to be yet another film I can only recommend to a very niche audience. Liz Wetherly (Leslie Uggams, who would go on to star in ROOTS), is a pop singer that you might just see “on the TV” (as many of the characters in this film would put it). After finishing singing the national anthem at a football game, she promptly gets on the road. She’s on vacation now, and all Liz really wants to do is find a quiet spot to relax.
Well…she gets her wish. Unfortunately, in the middle of nowhere (they never really explain where she was headed but…is it important?) her car breaks down. Stumbling across Bertha’s Oasis, a hole in the wall shitbox of a motel and bar, she finds none other than Ted Cassidy (Lurch from THE ADDAMS FAMILY, who is even more hideous looking out of makeup) chopping the heads off of chickens. He tells her he knows a man who can help with her vehicular troubles and takes her to Eddie (Michael Chastain).
And holy fuck does it get weird from there…
The tone of REDNECK COUNTY RAPE (which also went by the titles POOR PRETTY EDDIE and BLACK VENGEANCE) is creepy from the get go. There’s a strange, racially charged TEXAS CHAINSAW vibe going on for the majority of the 90 minute run time that’s going to put a lot of people off. Like THE BABY, REDNECK COUNTY RAPE isn’t about terrifying you in the traditional sense. Rather, it wants to get under your skin and make you squirm at all of the wholly uncomfortable situations Liz gets dragged into.
We meet Eddie in the motel he runs for Bertha, a fat, has-been singer played by Shelley Winters (yup…that Shelley Winters). But the motel isn’t the only thing Eddie takes care of for Bertha. The two are also lovers, and almost seem to share an incestuous mother/son bond that makes their scenes of making out and groping all the more discomforting.
Eddie also has big dreams in life. He doesn’t want to stay shackled to this washed up starlet forever. He wants to be a singer himself, and when he recognizes Liz “from the TV”, he starts to see her as a way out of his backwoods country life.
Oh, and he seems to think that she’s in love with him. Things get awkward…fast…
We’re introduced to the rest of the clan via a subdued version of the “dinner scene” from TEXAS CHAINSAW. Slim Pickens plays the local troll of a sheriff, who is always inexplicably followed around by a retarded man with a slingshot. During dinner, Eddie gets to perform for Liz (he’s an Elvis impersonator…and not a very good one), and everyone but the current star is blown away by his croon. But Eddie isn’t going to take “no” for an answer…
Eddie rapes Liz while wearing a Elvis loving teal rhinestone shirt, but that’s not the most uncomfortable element of the scene. To add insult to his audience’s injury, director Richard Robinson intercuts a slo-mo sequence of Ted Cassidy breeding his dog (with full-on explicit dog on dog penetration!) with the brutal sexual assault. And if that’s not enough to make you completely edgy, he includes leering close up shots of backwoods inbreds who treat the dogs fucking as the most entertaining thing they’ve seen in months. Once Eddie finishes with Liz, he places a tender kiss on his victim’s lips, like a newly minted husband would give his wife on their honeymoon.
I’ve watched a ton of exploitation movies over the years, but this one sequence ranks amongst the most fucked up things I’ve ever seen. There’s a part of me that thinks Robinson is using the scene as some kind of backwoods statement on race (“when it gets down to it…we’re all just dogs fucking”) but the sheer sleaziness of it all erases any sub-textual readings that were going on in my head. All I could really muster in that moment was: “dude…what the fuck?”
The racially charged moments of discomfort will continue on. Another scene has Liz going to the local Justice of the Peace (who is really just a fat piece of shit in a stained PBR shirt) so that retribution can be served up against Eddie. The Justice proceeds to put her on a chair in the middle of the VFW hall (apparently, this is where the Justice does his business) and makes her take her shirt off to show the bite marks on her breasts to all of the leering, nasty rednecks who are enjoying a concert. Trust me, anyone with good sense will want to run screaming for the exits as these ugly, DELIVERANCE extras drool over this poor woman.
But not me…I loved the crap out of this movie.
Because this is what exploitation is all about. It pushes your buttons and challenges what you deem “acceptable” in art. As a work of sensationalism, the movie succeeds in spades. And then Robinson flashes his filmmaking chops and takes REDNECK COUNTY RAPE to whole other level. The movie’s climax is a nightmarish bit of slow motion, Peckinpah inspired mayhem; a blood bath filmed at 100 frames per second that seems to last an eternity. Glorious in sheer excess, it’s the same stylized violence that fans of THE WILD BUNCH will lap up.
It’s hard to believe that Robinson never made another film after this one. For all of its “exploitive” elements, REDNECK COUNTY RAPE is a damn good film; a piece of southern fried suspense that is sure to make any fan of B-Cinema completely happy. I wish there were more works like this from Robinson to explore (ditto Michael Chastain…the man’s amazing as Eddie and then never made a movie like this again…). But that’s the wonder of true “grindhouse” cinema: you can find a gem that is completely unique to not only you, but to the people who made it as well.