Tuesday, October 28, 2014

31 Days of Fright: Slashers, Sleaze and Losing My Milligan Virginity, or, An Exhumed Horrorthon VIII Recap

For the last eight years, the holidays have arrived early here at ER HQ. And no, I don't mean Christmas or Thanksgiving – though I do love the opportunities they present to eat, drink and gather with family and friends (and maybe even offer up some Holiday Horrors).

No, I'm talking about Halloween, or, more precisely, the annual Exhumed Films 24 Hour Horrorthon. Launched back in 2007 to celebrate the DelVal film group's 10th anniversary, they have treated (and occasionally tricked) us with eight 'round-the-clock cinefests designed to delight, shock, scare and enthrall us... and 2014's edition was no exception. (For more on Exhumed VIII including some live sound check out Cinesludge episode 3.)

After spending Friday evening handing out hundreds of pieces of candy – and winning the pumpkin carving contest – at my daughter's grade school Boo Bash (think Trunk or Treat held inside), I downed a few beers and hit the hay to embrace the last sleep I'd get until late Sunday afternoon. With Horrorthon partner-in-crime Bruce Holecheck (of Cinema Arcana) along for the ride we made our way to Philly, ditched the car in the over-priced hotel garage, though secure in the knowledge it would be there for a quick, painless departure the next day.

Our approach to the show has changed over the years. The first year was truly uncharted territory and friends called us "crazy" for going. Until we reported back how fun the event was and, oh yeah, that we saw PIECES, BURIAL GROUND, DEMONS and PHANTASM – just to name a few – on the big screen. I remember drinking gargantuan amounts of coffee and Mt. Dew that first year and stashing a small pizza under my seat for late nite noshing.

These days my "go bag" is packed with bottles of water, Cliff Bars and 100 calorie packets of roasted almonds for when hunger hits at an inopportune time. Even my beloved Wawa Italian hoagie has been replaced with a chicken salad sandwich on rye with bacon and I drink more water than coffee. But it certainly paid off this year as the urge to doze was far less frequent and I only snuck out for fresh air and caffeine twice, but more on that later.

The pre-show line is always fun as you end up chatting with the folks around you about the event's secret lineup – films are not announced in advance and a program (and ballot) with vague clues is your only insight into what's in store. After seven years of pathetic shots in the dark I've given up on making guesses and handed my ballot over to Bruce. I've seen a lot (A LOT) of movies in my day, but I don't possess an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure gore and insane slashers... plus, I tend to convince myself that every clue is really going to finally for reals mean a showing of a beloved flick like LIFEFORCE, BLOODSUCKING FREAKS or NIGHT OF THE CREEPS.

Quick "hellos" to pals like Doc Terror and Chuck Francisco complete, we're in our seats for announcements (Most Important: No talking! This isn't your living room and, despite what you may think, you're not a writer for MST3K.) and door prizes, anxiously awaiting the first of – gulp – 15 flicks over the next 24 hours and change.

1. THE KEEP (1983)
Previous fests have typically launched with more of a straight horror flick, so this atmospheric slice of WWII horror/sci-fi from writer/director Michael Mann was a bit of a departure. I hadn't seen THE KEEP since the days when it played PRISM (Philly's local movie/sports pay cable channel) but I remembered it had a rocky road to the big screen and online reports suggest that about half its original running time was chopped for theatrical release. While the studio interference certainly shows, the cast is great, the Tangerine Dream score is haunting and brought to mind Mann's MANHUNTER, and it features a somewhat good guy-esque role for the usually villainous Jurgen Prochnow. Available on what looks like a grey market DVD.

2. BLACK MAGIC (1975)
Martial arts star Ti Lung headlines this 1975 Shaw Brothers classic complete with battling magicians, countless potions, erect talisman, a supporting German Shepherd and rice-encased privates. A rich schemer sets her eyes on a young, engaged engineer and hires a sinister magician to cast a love spell. Followed a year later by the even crazier sequel, BLACK MAGIC 2 (aka REVENGE OF THE ZOMBIES). Available on DVD.

I vaguely recall having seen this kiddie-oriented Godzilla flick when it aired on UHF back in the 1970s, but doubt I've seen it since. A latchkey kid daydreams of trips to Monster Island, where Godzilla lives with his son Minira and a bevy of other kaiju critters. The kids and a subplot about some bank robbers are a little annoying but even recycled Godzilla flick footage is a treat on the big screen. The flick's moral seems to be that the path to happiness is fighting and pulling pranks, and that just seems odd. Available on DVD.

I've never been a fan of Tobe Hooper's over-the-top, Cannon-financed sequel, much preferring Jeff Burr's take on the family of cannibal killers roaming the dark back roads of the Lone Star State. Featuring Viggo Mortensen, Ken Foree and Kate Hodge in her first starring role, LEATHERFACE is a perfect example of late 80s/early 90s horror cinema, complete with dated styles, quippy dialogue, a hard rock soundtrack (Laaz Rocket!) and – unfortunately – harsh MPAA cuts to achieve an R rating. Still, even when neutered this is a fast-paced and occasionally harrowing minor classic. Available on DVD with R-rated and Unrated versions.

5. BLUE MONKEY (1987)
Each Exhumed Horrorthon contains at least a couple flicks I simply never, ever expected to see on the big screen. This year featured several of those "Whoa!" moments, the first of which was William Fruet's 1987 paean to the big bug monster flicks of the Atomic Era (reviewed on our website many years ago). An innocent finger prick ends up producing a monstrous bug – thanks to a growth agent added by some too cute kids – and it's up to off-duty cop Jim Bishop (Steve Railsback) to save the day with the help of an ER doc and her entomologist pal. Shifting effortlessly between comedy, action and goo-drenched horror, BLUE MONKEY also features SCTV regulars Joe Flaherty and Robin Duke as comic relief and a pre-teen Sarah Polley (DAWN OF THE DEAD remake) as one of the kids. Available on VHS only.

6. PET SEMATARY (1989)
The Stephen King novel that inspired this stiff, stagey flick may have been the last book I read from the prolific author – and I recall not being able to put it down. Maybe that's why I've never warmed up to this adaptation and always preferred the way over-the-top sequel featuring Clancy Brown as the world's craziest living dead sheriff. At least that flick knows what it is and embraces it... PET SEMATARY wants to be taken seriously (Dale Midkiff is ponderous as the lead) while its attempts at horror produce more titters than terror. Sometimes, Wawa is better and once I was sure we were getting this overrated entry I made my way down the street for coffee and fresh air, knowing I'd get back in time for the meat of the flick and that killer title tune from the Ramones that plays over the end credits. "I don't wanna be buried... in a pet cemetery..." Available on Blu-Ray and DVD.

7. THE GATE 2 (1990)
The festival's 80s block comes to a conclusion with Tibor Takacs' follow-up to his 1987 metal-and-monsters original (which opened the 2012 Horrorthon). Louis Tripp returns as Terry, the metal-loving teen intent on giving another go at conjuring the demons that emerged from the titular gate in his friend's backyard years earlier. When he's joined by a trio of delinquents, they find themselves able to grant wishes... until it all turns (literally) to shit. Co-star/love interest Pamela Adlon (billed here as Pamela Seagall) went on to a prolific career as a voiceover actor, even winning an Emmy for her work as Bobby Hill on the beloved KING OF THE HILL. "All sloppy... and no joe." Available on VHS only.

With the Horrothon nearing its halfway point, the tone shifted dramatically from the more innocent late 80s/early 90s to the dank, dark and dangerous 1970s thanks to the very "WTF?!" LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET, an orgy of sleaze and violence that makes Wes Craven's LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT look like a Disney flick. Directing as Victor Janos and starring under the name Steven Harrison, gutter auteur Roger Watkins packs this surreal head-scratcher with images of sex and pseudo-snuff that put it miles ahead of similarly "controversial" flicks like SNUFF. I'd be hard pressed to synopsize LAST HOUSE but suffice it to say that it kept the audience in stunned silence for its mercifully short running time (and I mean that in the best way possible). Available on DVD.

To be frank, I'm not sure exactly what could provide an adequate palette-cleanser after the sensory onslaught of DEAD END STREET, but this Andy Millgan "period piece" was probably as good a choice as any. Surprisingly, despite wallowing in the cinemuck for 40 years (?!) I have never had the "pleasure" of watching an Andy Milligan film. Oh sure, I've read about his work in everything from FILM THREAT to SLEAZOID EXPRESS, but I never pulled the trigger on one of his polarizing, anachronistic epics. As Bruce put it while the credits rolled, "it's like a filmed stage play put on by insane people". I'm not sure I can do GURU more justice than that – and I'm not sure I'll be seeking out more Milligan in the future – but I'm glad I can finally say that I'm no longer a Milligan virgin. Available on DVD.

10. BOG (1983)
Looking every bit like it was filmed in the 1970s – because it was! – BOG has the dubious distinction of being the one flick that desperately wanted to seduce me into a late night snooze. I wasn't sure if it was the timeslot or the movie itself (Bruce insisted on the latter), but BOG's long takes, geriatric love story and deliberate pacing kept wanting me to accept sleep's sweet embrace. "Be gone, harlot!," my brain screamed as I fought to stay awake and cross the threshold from that dangerous 2 AM to 5 AM slot into the sinematic homestretch. And once BOG's creature was defeated – or was it? – I got a second (or, perhaps, third) wind. Available on DVD.

11. MOTHER'S DAY (1980)
People have asked me if the Exhumed Horrorthon features breaks to grab dinner, use the bathroom or simply stretch your legs from the International House's not quite comfortable seating. And while the answer used to be a qualified "yes", recent years have seen the show feature little more than five to ten minutes of trailers jammed between flicks. In other words, just enough time to use the john, grab a smoke or hike down to the nearby Wawa for a sandwich and coffee. Naturally, it's wise to wait and see what film begins next, so when the trailer reel after BOG suggested that the "satirical" horror on tap was from the folks at Troma, I waited with bated breath. Was this the year that my beloved BLOODSUCKING FREAKS would finally appear on that big ol' screen? Or, was it going to be a more likely candidate such as the mean-spirited, though at times intentionally funny, MOTHER'S DAY. Unfortunately, it ended up being the latter so I waited through the opening 20 minutes or so and ducked out for some invigorating 5 AM in Philly air, returning in just enough time to see the trio of gals from the "Rat Pack" take their revenge on mama and her boys. Available on Blu-Ray and DVD.

The homestretch of any Exhumed Horrorthon is always dicey. At that point you've fought off sleep, rounded the corner towards home, gotten your xth wind and can kinda see that finish line. But will you sprint across, propelled by the power of LADY TERMINATOR, THE CHILDREN, PIRANHA and RE-ANIMATOR (a la 2009) or be dragged kicking and screaming like 2011's quartet of BLOOD DINER, THE BURNING, MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE and MEET THE FEEBLES? (Full disclosure, that was the only year I actually left the event before the last film was over, embracing a hazy ride home over Peter Jackson's ho-hum puppet flick.) This year's closing quartet definitely delivered the goods, kicked off by this supernatural – and in my opinion – superior sequel to the more ballyhooed original (recently reviewed by Chuck Francisco). Barbecued prom queen Mary Lou Maloney possesses the body of good girl Vicki Carpenter (who may be afraid of what's happening to her but isn't afraid of some full frontal nudity) and even sets her sights on former beau Billy Nordham (Michael Ironside), now the school's principal and the father of Vicki's boyfriend. This flick is absolutely 80s and absolutely one of my underrated faves, though I can't believe there are two more PROM NIGHT flicks! Available on DVD.

Probably better known under the title BLOOD RAGE (which apparently sports a different cut of the film), SHADOW WOODS is a rare Holiday Horror set on Thanksgiving. Set off by seeing his mother (Louise Lasser) hook up at the drive-in, a young boy murders another patron with an axe and promptly blames his twin brother, who gets locked away for the crime. Fast forward to Thanksgiving night when the locked up (but innocent) brother escapes from the mental facility and mom announces her engagement to Brad the apartment complex manager. Evil twin Terry – now a college student – is set off by the announcement and begins butchering his way through friends, family and hospital staff sent to retrieve his brother. Never quite by the numbers, SHADOW WOODS benefits from performances by the quirky Lasser and Mark Soper (as both of the a bit bonkers brothers), plentiful gore, some nudity, early 80s fashion crimes (it was filmed in 1983 but not released until 1987) and a script that isn't afraid to repeatedly use a blood/cranberry sauce gag. I'd love to see this obscure gem get a nice release. Available on VHS.

I still remember my skin crawling when I watched this NIGHT GALLERY-worthy tale of aggressive spiders attacking a remote Arizona town when it hit UHF back in the late 1970s. And unlike some horrors of the period, KINGDOM holds up extremely well, benefitted greatly by a top-notch B-cast headlined by William Shatner, Woody Strode and David McLean. Shatner – as veterinarian Rack Hansen – never overdoes it as the horseback riding hero and the whole cast plays the grim tale straight. The final shot is haunting and reminds you of a time when ending horror flicks on a down note was a-ok. Available on DVD.

"Thrill me." I've been waiting almost 30 years to see Det. Cameron (Tom Atkins in a movie-stealing performance) utter those words on the big screen and the wait was totally worth it. Part of a personal 80s Trinity that also includes RE-ANIMATOR and DEMONS, NIGHT OF THE CREEPS remains one of my favorite horror films ever made and – for me, at least – one of the few horror-comedies that deftly juggles exploding heads and one-liners with equal aplomb. I rated it five stars upon seeing the VHS back in the 80s and it ranks that high to this day. And, thanks to the guys at Exhumed Films, I can cross another masterpiece off my Theatrical Bucket List. Available on Blu-Ray and DVD.

So there you have it – a quickie recap of a great event featuring one of the most solid Horrorthon lineups to date. Kudos to the entire Exhumed Films crew who bring together a great annual event that comes off almost seamlessly, though I know that there are probably plenty of hiccups along the way.

I just have one request for next year or the next or even the next. BLOOD! SUCKING! FREAKS! In the meantime I suppose I can settle for the new Blu-Ray...!

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