The Rosetta shot: “Hatchet II”
You know how teenaged gorehounds sometimes make excitable lists of all the bizarre and hyperbolic ways they’d like to see people dispatched in films? There’s a reason big-budget movies aren’t made from those lists.
Adam Green’s Hatchet isn’t a great movie. It’s not even a good movie. But it does scratch, however nakedly, that old-school slasher itch; once it gets going (and, like the films it emulates, it takes way too long to get going), it offers some undemanding cheap thrills. Dumb as dirt and half as useful, Hatchet nevertheless delivers on the splattery promise it makes to its audience. That said, it doesn’t do anything else worth consideration and is ultimately kind of pointless. Hatchet is to cinema as a 7-11 microwave burrito is to food - it’ll satiate hunger by the most basic understanding of the concept, but there’s no reason to consume it unless you’re drunk or desperate, and even then you’ll probably hate yourself afterwards.
With that in mind, Hatchet II is what happens after the burrito combined with the alcohol and/or shame turn on you. In the ignominious tradition of pretty much every slasher sequel, it’s a wretched piece of regurgitated rot, the kind of film that still takes half a movie to set up its universe despite having thoroughly set it up in the first part. The only innovation, as with a good many of these types of things (i.e. the Friday the 13th series), is the escalated brutality of the money scenes, yet Hatchet II screws up even that by pushing its kills so far over the top that they become extravagantly ridiculous. The intended effect is to make the audience go, “OH COOL WOW I’VE NEVER SEEN THAT BEFORE,” but the actual effect is an alienation - Victor Crowley’s dallying with belt sanders and table saws and so on try so hard to be so unique and KOOL that they become faintly insulting, like we’re being pandered to.
Compounding the issue, Green’s puerile sense of humor gets even freer reign than it did in the first film. For instance, consider the two hunters (one of whom is an Odious Comic Relief black dude who’s all rampaging, sassy id) who get ambushed by Crowley as he wields the most enormous chainsaw in creation. The two are then simultaneously bisected from crotch to cranium, and in most slasher flicks that’d be it - the wild death is the punchline. Green can’t resist trying to plop a cherry on top of the sickness sundae, though, so we’re treated to a shot of one unfortunate party’s disembodied testicles flopping to the ground. That’s not clever, son, that’s just moronic gilding of the bloody lily.
But let’s be honest - it’s not like Green doesn’t warn you from the get-go. As you can see above, his writing/directing credit appears on screen hovering above a fresh puddle of vomit. That alone sends enough of a warning, but here’s the kicker: Guess who that is in the scene as the ashen-faced fratboy responsible for said vomit? Adam Green, of course. Essentially he’s saying before things have even started, “Yep, I puked this thing up, and you’re stuck watching it. Too late to get your money back now, sucker.” Prost to you too, buddy.
Horror Challenge entry #11: The Body Shop AKA Doctor Gore (1973, J.G. Patterson Jr.)
How bad does a film have to be to make Herschell Gordon Lewis’s films look like sensitive, thoughtful masterpieces in comparison? This damn bad.
Starts off promisingly dumb, with a mad scientist using tin foil on a body “to seal in all the radium” and a midget hunchback who needs help putting on his lab coat, but the fun doesn’t last. Patterson ladles on the grue in this offbeat “Frankenstein” gloss, yet his film is too inept and uninspired to work even in the intended titillative function. Maybe it’s because, despite the exploitative material, Patterson never seems to commit to the idea of a gut-pulling gore flick, and once his creation (a lovely, nubile young woman with the brain of a child) is complete, the film turns into some awkward combination of love story and brain-cracked sitcom about the difference between men and women. (Seriously, there’s even a musical montage with the doctor and his creation frolicking in nature and making googly eyes at one another.) All the tempura paint and white linen can’t keep this from being dispiritingly terrible, even by the standards of Florida-lensed exploitation films. Even the score, an obnoxiously insistent organ-based thing, is awful. In fact, fuck Lewis… Patterson makes William Grefe look talented by comparison. The befuddling non-ending is just icing on the cake.
Horror Challenge entry #9: Laid to Rest (2009, Robert Hall)
This really coulda been something if it didn’t keep getting in its own damn way. I guess, since it’s not 1983 anymore, it’s not enough for a movie to simply be an inventive and gruesome slasher flick - it needs to have a plot and characters and stuff, stuff more complicated than, “big dude in mask guts people.” What irks about Hall’s sophomore feature is that he’s really damn good with the basics of the slasher genre - his direction is solid, he builds tensions and knows how to time his shocks, and his makeup gags are cruelly creative. (Johnathon Schaech’s death scene is remarkable in its terrifically-staged savagery.) If he’d only stick to that, make a stripped-down killfest and leave it at that, he’d be aces with me. But far, far too much of Laid to Rest is spent on sussing out the relationship between its killer, an implacable camera-toting mute named Chrome Skull, and its Final Girl, a whiny nameless amnesiac whose every action seems to get someone slashed. The script goes on and on like it’s got an ace up its sleeve, a big twist it’s hiding. Then we reach the climax and… nothing. The big reveal is a big kaput, as it changes little about the film aside from clarifying the already-subtextual (and not exactly difficult-to-figure-out) reactionary streak in Chrome Skull’s rampage. Dude, I read Carol Clover too. I know how this stuff works. No need to highlight and underline it for the sake of coyness. Might be worth seeing for the curious and undemanding for its gore FX, which again are terrific, and for the sight of Kevin Gage in an unabashedly heroic role.
Horror Challenge entry #5: Redneck Zombies (1987, Pericles Lewnes)
I don’t know what’s more unexpected - that most of the best parts of a film titled Redneck Zombies have nothing to do with either rednecks or zombies, or that a film titled Redneck Zombies has “best parts” at all. I know that sounds like snark, but I mean that in all sincerity - Redneck Zombies isn’t really a good film, and who would really want a “good” film about ’80s-fashion-victim campers beset by undead rednecks poisoned by hooch laced with government-sourced toxic waste? Beholden as it is to the lower-than-lowbrow Troma aesthetic, it’s open and cheerful about embracing its badness; rather than try to take a dopey premise and prove himself by crafting something “serious” from it, writer/director Lewnes goes blessedly bonkers with the dopiness, loading up on redneck humor and gross-out humor and drug humor, while still finding sneaky ways to prove that he’s got more talent than the average video-camera-toting auteur. His visuals, in particular, are more ambitious than most low-level gutmunchers; whether it was the appeal of fucking around with the video image in ways that hadn’t yet become commonplace in the genre market or simply a sense that he had nothing to lose, Lewnes throws every warping effect that he can at many of his shots. Looking at the opening sequence, set in a dilapidated asylum and replete with whooshing canted Raimi-esque angles, colorful video psychedelia and cacophonous reverb-drenched soundtrack, you’d be forgiven if you thought for a minute that you wandered into some other, creepier film. Lewnes returns to the lysergic whenever it suits him, and while the encroaching zombie attacks are effective in their way, the most impressive pieces of this patchwork work are those which allow him to indulge that, i.e. the spaced-out meltdowns upon the first consumption of the chemical-waste-tainted moonshine and, especially, the increasingly absurd and weirdly hilarious autopsy performed on a zombie by a med student tripping on acid.
Furthermore, Lewnes airs out that tendency towards the creepy with the occasional appearance of the Tobacco Man (a hooded, towering beast of a man with a digitally-altered voice) and a bizarre, inexplicable sequence in the house of the neighborhood “freelance butcher.” In these sequences, we can see Lewnes straining against his self-imposed limitations to show what he can do beyond goofy gory kitsch. I’m not dissing the kitsch, mind you - I enjoy an unapologetic zombie film as much as anyone. It’s not the second word in the title that gives me pause; the film’s weakness, truth be told, is in the idiots-in-pants-and-overalls setup. While there’s some incidental silliness and likable running gags (like the constantly-changing T-shirts on one fellow I nicknamed Jerkass Camper), the bulk of the humor is broad and dumb, hick humor at its most indulgent. There’s a lot of redneck to get through before the zombies show up, and while this isn’t nearly as tiresome as, say, Sassy Sue, a little of it goes a really long way.
I will say, though, that I appreciated the double-edged payoff in the shot of the alcoholic camper downing a pint of Graves’ Grain Alcohol right before a zombie attack.
I will also say that, no matter how bad a film is otherwise, I cannot fail to give at least a half-hearted recommendation to a film with this particular zombie extra:
Ain’t he just the cutest little flesh-eater ever?
Horror Challenge entry #4: The Video Dead (1987, Robert Scott)
Holy ballsack, is this film ever terrible. That’s all I have to say about it. No, really. It’s fucking awful, I don’t understand the minor cult that’s sprung up around it and I don’t want to talk about it. Let’s move the fuck on. Okay, fine. You want proof? Here. See how long you make it before wanting to punch something in rage:
Horror Challenge entry #3: Daybreakers (2010, Michael & Peter Spierig)
A stylish and darkly funny social satire with horrific elements for much of its running time, but it’s clearly a film where the concept was a strong draw yet the Spierigs never quite figured how to fully utilize it. They set up the world, set up the conflict and set up the characters, yet on the evidence here they never quite nailed down how to resolve that conflict with the characters and world provided. What was pretty neat starts to go wobbly around the midway point, when the vampirism cure starts to foreground itself; by the third act, the film has broken down into generic action-packed blood-n-bullets mayhem, with convenient heel turns (and vice versa) and heroic characters who are never as dead as expected. Also, Ethan Hawke is such a wet blanket, I mean really, and the good-brother/bad-brother conflict is weary, weary shit. I know I’m in the minority on this, but I have to say I still prefer the Spierig’s scrappy crappy debut Undead.
Horror Challenge entry #1: Frozen (2010, Adam Green)
Maybe this Green kid knows what he’s doing after all. Far removed from the jokey emptiness of Hatchet, Frozen is a taut, ruthless and dead serious bit of survival horror that wants us to care about what happens to its unfortunate characters. Myriad are the horror films where youngsters, privileged youngsters, do stupid stuff to deserve their fate and we in the audience agree. Rarer, and much harder to pull off, is the horror film where the main characters do stupid stuff to deserve their fate yet we hope they avoid it because the film works hard to make us see past their faults to the essential humanity underneath. That’s the strength of Frozen: It’s a combination of bad luck and the-rules-don’t-apply-to-us brazenness that gets three youths accidentally stranded on a powered-down ski lift, yet as the elements take their toll and guards get dropped, sympathy starts to creep in. Once that happens, it’s an easy jump to hoping for the best for these characters, which then means Green can start throwing gut punches. Exposure and rot, the fragility of flesh, place this as uncomfortably close to body-horror as a man-vs.-wild shock show can get, and each bodily failing is played for maximum impact (the blonde’s hand on the metal railing, for instance). A striking step in the right direction for a hopeful young talent; let’s hope this proves to be the rule and not the exception in his career. (Hatchet II seems a regression, though I haven’t seen it.)
The Rosetta shot: “The Toolbox Murders” (1978)
So, yeah. A naked, bruised woman with a nail gun held point-blank at her head by a black-gloved figure. That’s… blunt.
Look at that debased image. No, really. Look at it. Process it, roll it around in your mind. That is an actual shot from an actual movie that was actually released in general release. What does that say about the film that contains it?
For one thing, it says that the people who made this film do not want you to feel safe. Like it or not, The Toolbox Murders does not fuck around when it comes to being, you know, a horror movie. If the primary purpose of a horror film is to either A) frighten and scare, or B) disturb the senses, then the people who made this film decided to go straight for the throat and choose B. Toolbox is, above all, a truly nasty and unclean film, a movie where you can practically see the sickness oozing off the screen. The question is, is that necessarily a bad thing? If the intent is to make a film that leaves you feeling sucker-punched by the feeling that nothing is going to be okay any time soon, shouldn’t the makers commit to the idea? This film, if nothing else, is god-damned committed. The first act is nearly contextless unmitigated stalk-and-slaughter fodder, like a giallo with the plotty bits removed. The second act then slows down to fall into a half-hearted sort of investigative-plot routine, with the brother of an abducted teen working to find her and, ostensibly, the slasher of the first act. The slasher, incidentally, is deranged Puritanical apartment superintendent Cameron Mitchell at his most drunkenly, sweatily fervent. This bit hits all the expected marks, but you can tell that it’s there because it has to be. Then you get to the bleak, bleak third act, and suddenly the air of dutifulness makes a horrid, nihilistic sense.
The hell of it is, this isn’t poorly made. This is crafted by people who knew what they were doing and spent all their talent on visuals, dialogue and plot beats that serve only to repel and discomfit. During the first body-discovery scene, the filmmakers toy with expectations (and later revelations) by having Mitchell bobbing up and down, out of focus but recognizable, in the background while the cops on the scene discuss whoever could have done such a horrid thing. There’s a long sequence with Mitchell and the kidnapped girl, where Mitchell treats her with nothing but genial patriarchal concern - while sucking on a fucking lollipop, no less! - that ranks as one of the most skin-crawling things I’ve seen in a film.
Given the talent and skill on display, I suspect that the wallow in extreme violence and extreme imagery has less to do with callow shock and more with the expulsion of psychic damage (which sets it apart from pathetic “provocative” dreck like David DeFalco’s Chaos). Director Dennis Donnelly spent his entire career working in television working on things like “Simon & Simon,” “Hawaii Five-O” and “Hart to Hart.” This was his only feature film, and after viewing it you understand why. The Toolbox Murders is not a film you make if you’re trying to secure future career prospects. This is a film you make if you have something terrible and icky inside of you welling up, and you need to expel it and turn it into art. This is a film you make if you desperately need to deal with your own darkness so you can continue on with life.
Toolbox is not a great film. I can’t even really defend it as a good film - unlike, say, I Spit on Your Grave, there’s no real point here to the degradation aside from, possibly, personal catharsis. But it is undeniably effective. Its bluntness means to get under your skin, and it does.
My review of The Human Centipede (First Sequence) went up over the week at In Review Online. I’m not a fan.
From the Shelf: Army of Darkness (1993, Sam Raimi)
Acquired: In 1998 from some now-defunct online retailer - part of the first batch of DVDs I ever bought.
Seen before?: A whole bunch of times. Can’t remember the last time, but it’s been a while.
Is there anything as painful as revisiting something you love and finding it’s not as good as you remember? I know the manic ramshackle nature of this is really part of its charm, but Jesus is that first act ever slack. Evil Dead II probably would have had the same issues if it didn’t basically cheat by kickstarting itself with a rehash of its predecessor. Because of this, Army of Darkness can’t really pull the same trick, so it condenses the whole thing into a four-minute prologue, and the cold open does it no favors. Raimi’s the kind of guy who needs a minute or two to settle himself into a comfortable groove before he can effectively cut loose, so the opening act of Army is awkwardly paced in a way I’d never really noticed before this. (Granted, that also likely stems from the film’s notorious editing/studio interference woes.) That said, most of this is still absolutely fucking golden. From roughly the old mill on, this thing is as unstoppable as the granite-jawed bumbler/hero that Ash has grown into. But I’d be lying to myself if I continued to ignore how bloody flawed it is.
Up next: Bergman + Bergman…