A Streak of Slashers

The American slasher movie boom, once it got rolling, ended up in a race to the bottom really very suddenly. After Black Christmas was a modest success, Halloween and Friday the 13th ended up becoming monsters, earning back some 100-200 times their budget in the cinemas. The combination of astonishingly cheap budgets and apparently low standards on the part of the audience meant that a lot of crap was produced by people jumping on the bandwagon.

For this article, I’m going to take a comically huge machete and chop out a cross-section of the genre to look at, illustrating its decline over the course of the 1980s. I’ll start with a pretty decent 1981 release (with some major problems) from early on in the craze, move on to a more amateurish effort blessed with some fun effects from 1984 from the mid-1980s, and end up with a trashfire which crept out straight-to-video in 1985 in Spain before it finally got a domestic release in the US in 1987.

Content warning time: this article is about slasher movies, also one of them was made by Harvey Weinstein, so obviously rape and murder are just a shot away this time around.

The Burning

Once upon a time at Camp Blackfoot, some of the kids decided to play a cruel prank on the caretaker, Cropsy (Lou David), who was a bit of a hate figure among them. Having obtained a spooky old worm-riddled skull and slipped some candles into its eye-sockets to make it extra scary, they crept into his bedroom, set the skull on the table next to him, and then crept out and banged on the window to wake him up.

Unfortunately, when he was startled by the skull he kicked out and made it fall on his bedsheets, starting a fire which went out of control when some of the large drums of gasoline Cropsy liked to keep precariously stacked next to his bed fell on it. Cropsy was left horribly burned, and Camp Blackfoot was left a burned-out shell. Five years later, a new summer camp, Camp Stonewood, thrives on the other side of the lake, and Cropsy has finally gotten out of hospital. Time for a revenge spree? Yes, it’s definitely time for a revenge spree.

The Burning has the extremely dubious distinction of being the very first movie produced by Harvey Weinstein, who was inspired by hearing the “Cropsey” urban myth in his youth. Or at least, that’s what he said, but it’s pretty obvious what the main inspiration here is – namely, the previous year’s Friday the 13th. The Weinsteins pulled off a small coup here by getting Tom Savini in to do the makeup and gore effects, Savini having parted ways with the Friday the 13th franchise because he thought the plot point in Part II of Jason being alive after all was silly.

What with Miramax being a fresh new company, some aspects of the film were made on the sheet; it was a comparatively quick shoot and they couldn’t afford a lot of Tom Savini’s time, prompting Savini to recycle some special effects tricks from Friday the 13th, but he does a fine job anyway. It particularly helps that the final confrontation takes place in a genuinely interesting environment – the burnt-out remnants of Camp Blackfoot. (That said, it looks like wherever it is they found to stand in for that was more extensive than a summer camp – if I had to guess I’d say they were filming in an old logging camp or something.)

Still, the visuals on my Blu-ray copy of the movie sometimes reveal issues with the effects. You can very clearly see the helmet the stuntman was wearing in the “Cropsy gets burned” scene, for instance, and in another scene where a victim is supposed to have been scared by Cropsy’s horrible burned face the actor is clearly wearing a black balaclava which they couldn’t have seen any facial details through and was presumably supposed to fade into the darkness in the shot.

It’s also very evident that there’s two different masks used in climactic fight, one more detailed with visible eyes and one less detailed with dark holes where the eyes should be. Apparently, Tom Savini’s schedule on the movie was so tight he had to work on the mask in his dressing room in between other special effects duties, which might explain some of these discrepancies: some of the bits in question were shot when the mask simply wasn’t ready.

When you’re dealing with a movie like this you usually expect a pretty shallow level of characterisation, but the script by Bob Weinstein and Peter Lawrence attempts to depict a more nuanced set of characters and succeeds, at the cost of some dissonant notes in the final whole. For instance, you have the classic dynamic of the hated bully (Glazer, played by Larry Joshua) and the awkward outsider who ends up being befriended by the other kids (Alfred, played by Brian Backer), partly because they feel sorry for him and partly because they hate the bully more and want to help him get one over on his tormentor. So far, so typical.

However, the twist here is that part of the reason Alfred’s isolated here is that, rather than socialising with his campmates, he’s been doing stuff like prowling around the girl’s showers – which is why Glazer is pissed off at him in the first place, since it’s Glazer’s girlfriend Sally (Carrick Glenn) who’s scared by Alfred’s perving about. It’s clear that in some ways Glazer is equally socially isolated but is responding with anger and aggression rather than withdrawal – and equally clear that Alfred is persistently stalking Sally (or he’s stalking Glazer and he really did want to scare Sally away, like he claimed when initially caught in the showers, or he’s stalking both of them like a creepy little unicorn).

Moreover, it’s clear that boys’ counselor Todd (Brian Matthews) is torn over the issue and is called out over it by Michelle (Leah Ayres), the girls’ counselor, for vacillating over whether to punish creepy Alfred for creeping. Todd is equally ineffectual at dealing with the bullying behaviour of Glazer, and in this absence of clear supervision and appropriate role models the kids in the camp run amok a little. (Gosh, I wonder where Bob Weinstein got such insight into how people can end up turning a blind eye to unacceptable behaviour, thereby making a bad situation worse?)

This awkwardness around the campers is exacerbated because this is one of those problematic movies where because of the casting practices involved (in particular, the necessity of casting women old enough that you can show their boobs without going to jail), it’s really hard to distinguish the kids and counselors, though given that the counselors seem meant to be barely more mature than the kids this may be intentional.

Cropsy’s also a difficult figure here. On the one hand, the prank played on him at the start of the movie seems cruel and uncalled-for, and being burned to a crisp by a bunch of spiteful kids feels like the sort of amazingly cruel, arbitrary, horrible event that makes a murderous campaign of revenge feel, if not actually justified, then at least somewhat understandable. However, between the level of violence Cropsy indulges in, acts like randomly murdering a prostitute as soon as he gets out of the hospital, and the fact that the stories about the cruelty he supposedly indulged in prior to the burning involves extensive use of just the same tools as he uses to kill people… It all adds up to give the impression that this just wasn’t the case of the kids taking against the caretaker simply because he was a bit ugly and didn’t interact with them much and had an off-putting manner, but that they may have been lashing out for reasons which, again, were kind of understandable on their part.

Plus, you know, having a large, teetering pile of drums of gasoline stacked next to your bed is kind of asking for trouble.

Where The Burning particularly stands out is in the audacity of Cropsy’s attacks. Typically, in this sort of thing killers isolate their prey and pick them off one by one. Whilst Cropsy does do a certain amount of that, there’s one truly shocking attack which takes place right in broad daylight, where he ambushes a raft with a whole group of kids on it and wipes them out, leaving their corpses on the draft to drift downstream to terrorise the main camp. (One suspects that The Burning earned its spot on the video nasty list solely on the strength of this scene – though that could be one of many cases of mistaken identity on the list, since The Burning was also an alternate title used for the astonishingly grim Don’t Go In the House.)

Some suspension of disbelief is needed when it comes to Cropsy’s capabilities – they’re doing the Friday the 13th/Halloween “force of nature” deal with him, it seems. In particular, he shows incredible strength for someone who has been intensively treated in hospital for five years. But between appalling acts like the raft attack and the atmospheric score by Rick Wakeman, somehow you suspend disbelief.

According to production assistant Paula Wachowiak, Weinstein was a shitty harasser even in the process of making this movie, and whilst a whole range of movies have his grubby fingerprints on them and don’t deserve to be discounted just because of that, The Burning has an unusual importance in his career since it was his first production credit. Moreover, the story was his idea, and this gives rise to some awkward parallels with his later career – Alfred the creep turns out to save the day in the end, for instance, and the general narrative of these predatory guys (Alfred, Cropsy) actually turning out to be misunderstood sorts who were just pushed too far is especially unfortunate.

That being the case, the movie has levels of ick to it above and beyond those which typically adhere to slasher movies. If those are dealbreakers for you, then they’re dealbreakers. If, on the other hand, you’re happy to look past that, The Burning is one of the more competent of the wave of slashers following Friday the 13th, Tony Maylam’s direction pulling together the elements of the film nicely.

The Mutilator

Some slasher movies go out of their way to keep the identity of the killer a mystery, maintaining a whodunnit element to the action until the climax. Others don’t bother. The Burning wasn’t shy about its killer’s identity, and nor is The Mutilator, AKA Fall Break. Once upon a time, a little boy called Ed Junior (played in this flashback by Trace Cooper) is helping his mum (Pamela Weddel Cooper) get ready for a surprise birthday party for his daddy when he accidentally shoots mum dead with one of dad’s hunting rifles. (This was 100% not his fault, by the way – it had been left loaded in the gun cabinet, which was itself left unlocked where little Ed could get at it, which is enough basic failures of essential gun safety rules in one place to land the blame squarely on the head of the irresponsible jackass who left the guns that way – namely, the dad.)

Years pass and Ed is now a college student (played by Matt Mitler); his dad, Ed Senior (Jack Chatham) calls him up asking him to come down to the family’s beach condo and get it sorted out for winter – turn off the water and electricity, put antifreeze where it needs to go, that sort of thing. Ed Junior doesn’t fancy it, but eventually decides to go along when a bunch of his friends agree to come with him to make a little holiday out of it. (Is “fall break” really a thing? It seems a bit soon after the start of term and the end of the long summer holidays to abruptly have another holiday.)

Apparently, in the years since the accident, Ed Senior has taken to drink in a big way, but he hasn’t given up his hunting hobby – and Ed Junior mentions that papa’s claimed to have hunted just about every big game out there except people. So it’s absolutely no surprise when it turns out that a hung-over daddy is sleeping off a booze binge in a cupboard in the garage the kids haven’t looked in yet, cuddling his favourite battleaxe, and wakes up from a gory dream of murdering child-Ed with a hankerin’ for some murderin’.

The Mutilator is a project that could all too easily have turned into the Manos: the Hands of Fate of slasher movies – a film produced by an enthusiastic amateur director/writer/actor who doesn’t have the first clue what he’s doing. Fortunately, early on in the process director Buddy Cooper – an attorney by his day job – realised he was out of his debt and was able to obtain the assistance of John Douglass, who is credited as his co-director.

Douglass was a local film professor, which meant he had a handy supply of students keen to get some on-set experience as cast or crew, with other parts being filled out by Buddy’s friends and family – Trace is his real-life son, and I think Pamela Weddel Cooper was Buddy’s wife/Trace’s mother. (Further evidence lies in Ruth Martinez’s character, who gets the heroic “final girl” spot, being called Pam.)

The whole thing seems to have been a bit of family fun, combined with a learning experience for Douglass’s students, which also happened to yield a serviceable slasher movie by the end of the process which, whilst it didn’t set the world on fire, at the very least earned itself a Blu-ray release through Arrow recently, and seems to have been embraced by the Cooper’s home town of Atlantic Beach (where the movie is set) as That One Time Something Interesting Happened Here Not Connected To The Tourist Season. (Trace Cooper is the town’s current Mayor, so appearing in the film killing his mum and then getting killed by his dad has done wonders for his community profile.)

What saves the movie from being entirely interchangeable is the astonishingly gory killings, which reach a point where they become more comical than horrifying at points and are, if nothing else, a fun and morbid example of the makeup and special effect artist’s magic. That said, outside of the actual kills some of the effects are a bit cheesy; the slow motion on pool attack scene is a bit Darkplace, and there’s one bit where the electrical box which supposedly controls pool lights very obviously wobbles when they throw the lever, like it isn’t really fixed to anything.

Aside from this, The Mutilator ticks most of the slasher movie checkboxes competently – OK, it’s amateurish in parts, but people with better training were putting out crappier movies in this style alongside this. The soundtrack combines standard slasher movie synthesiser noodling with a soft rock soundtrack more appropriate for a lighthearted sitcom, or perhaps a cheesy teen movie. The actors’ performances seem bad at first, but actually they’re kind of tonally perfect in the sense that this dorky group of film students do a good job of playing a pack of dorky college students. There’s some surprisingly equal-opportunity fanservice shots too; the exploitative swimming sequence does show some boob, but you also get to see significantly more rippling manchest in the same sequence than you usually do with these things, what with the camera being glued to the boobs with the “male gaze” filter cranked up.

Nail Gun Massacre

Now, if you want a Manos of slasher movies, then this disasterpiece by Terry Lofton is surely in the running. The plot, such that there is, is as follows: during the opening scene a group of construction workers gang rape a woman. Some time later, the members of the construction team (plus a range of bystanders) are stalked and killed by a murderer equipped with a motorcycle helmet, camouflage paintball overalls, a Darth Vader voice, a penchant for shitty one-liners and the titular nailgun. Presumably, these two events are linked somehow, but don’t worry – the movie will never really explain how.

Nail Gun Massacre resembles what The Mutilator might have become if it didn’t have a film school professor on “no, point the camera that way” duty. It’s very obviously the product of eager amateurs whose enthusiasm outweighs their capabilities, and who have the strangest damn ideas as to how this movie-making process works. Many “bad movies” are really just boringly mediocre movies, consisting of the same old moviemaking cliches applied in a stultifyingly mediocre manner, but let’s be clear, there’s absolutely nothing mediocre or cliched about Nail Gun Massacre. Everything about it is exceptional, even if it’s typically exceptionally shitty; everything about it is original, if only because nobody who knew what they were doing would even think to make a movie this way.

Take, for instance, the nailgun itself: you pretty much never actually see the killer actually fire the thing, they just sort of twitch it in the direction of their victims and a laser gun sound effect plays and the victims fall over and then there’s a jump cut and there’s fake blood in roughly the appropriate spot. Sometimes there’s actually a nail or two two, though those are treated as strictly optional.

What thin plot there is is filled out by bizarre asides covering utterly trivial bullshit. Two dudes pick up lumber from the lumberyard to fix up the shack they live in with their lady friend; a woman runs out of the depot and utterly loses her shit at them because they left behind their receipt. The manager of the lumber yard turns down some guys looking for odd jobs and directs them to the Bailey house. An old lady beavering away at the general store mutters about how it was much nicer back in the day when you could sit outside without worrying about mosquitoes and serial killers. Sometimes these tangents find their way to the main plot – the Bailey house is the epicentre of the attacks, for instance – but good grief, do they take the scenic route around to get there, and since the film isn’t even 90 minutes long that doesn’t leave much time for an actual story to happen in.

Acting, naturally, is optional; the best actors involved are the various cars and motorcycles driven around, which move around and function in the manner you expect of them. Writer-director Terry Lofton as a stuntman in The Dukes of Hazzard, which I guess explains his good working relationship with the motor vehicle members of the cast.

As far as actual human cast members go, the best thing you can say about them is that all manage to portray distinctive characters, if only because of their frequently bizarre behaviour. Those itinerant workers who got sent over to the Bailey place just kind of forget that they were looking for a job and have a nice picnic with their girlfriends instead. The local sheriff finds an abandoned hearse by the side of the road, inspects it briefly, and then radios in that it’s just an abandoned car so he’s not going to do anything about it. A couple makes an attempt at this thing human beings call “kissing”; the man ends up swallowing his girlfriend’s lit cigarette. Later, the lady in question assumes she’s going to die because her friends have left her alone for a while and she’s heard gunshots, despite the fact that the nailgun sound effect used sounds nothing like a gun. These strange creatures in superficially human form do random shit for an allotted period of time, then the nailgun killer shows up just in time to save us from getting bored and entertains us with some charmingly inept murders.

Not that the killer’s priorities make any more sense. They show up whilst two characters are enthusiastically fucking up against a tree and so far as I can make out just stand there for three or four minutes staring at the hairy back and grinding ass of the gentleman involved before they remember that they’re supposed to be murdering these people. Then again, what do you expect of a movie where even the corpses can’t quite work out how to act like corpses?

88 Films have put this one out in their Slasher Classics collection, and giving into some imp of the perverse have loaded it with way more extras than they provide for movies with far more of what we would conventionally recognise as artistic merit (or even, for that matter, basic competence). They even go so far as to offer it in two aspect ratios – a 16×9 version which was presumably prepared for DVD releases, and the original 4×3 aspect ratio that actually gets the entire straight-to-VHS picture into the frame. The restoration job they’ve done on this is reasonable, but there’s a limit to how good 16mm film from the 80s can look. Along with the hilariously inept Last Slumber Party, this represents the point where the slasher movie craze of the 1980s went well beyond “awful” and straight out the other side.

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