With the coming of the Halloween season, Starpulse contributing writer Kris King is dedicating every day in October to watch a horror movie that has passed him by.
This week we learn the dangers of transvestites in camp with "Sleepaway Camp," get hooked on Viper in "Street Trash," and venture down a road that never ends in "Dead End."
"Sleepaway Camp" is a strange movie. In essence, it's nothing more than a cheap, by-the-numbers Friday the 13th knock-off, but while the two movies are identical in setting, time period, structure, and murderous methodology, "Sleepaway Camp" manages to set itself apart by being as unhinged and weird as possible.
The victims of Pamela and Jason Voorhees at Camp Crystal Lake were mostly harmless late 70s freeloving leftovers. By contrast, the staff at "Sleepaway Camp's" Camp Arawak mostly consists of pedophiles, bodybuilders and other generally despicable assholes. Writer/Director Robert Hiltzik makes it clear that everyone that gets killed in the movie most assuredly had it coming. The head chef that gets doused with a commercial cooking pot full of boiling water? Child molester. The hotshot older boy that gets eaten alive by bees? Kind of a jerk. The group of eight year olds out camping that get hacked up with an axe? Actually, I'm pretty sure they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"Sleepaway Camp" is the type of movie that heavily relies on a contingent of thirteen-year-olds whose fathers let them rent R-rated movies at the video store, and Hilzik clearly recognizes that. But rather than feed his audience of adolescent boys eager to see nubile flesh and gross-out gore, he turns it on them by giving the entire movie a weirdly subversive gay vibe. The last thing an insecure hormonal teenage boy wants to see is another guy's penis, and the movie bases its entire climax on that idea with its (spoiler alert!) weird, left-field Crying Game twist ending. The girl who you thought was the killer is the killer, but it turns out she has a penis, and here it is. The end.
Typically a slasher of this type will stack its cast with eager female teens, happy to parade their jugs around for the nation's horny thirteen-year-olds, but Hilzik's girls are homely and noticeably clothed throughout. It's the guys who are scantily clad. Almost every male camp counselor has giant cinderblock pecs and parade around wearing bike shorts and t-shirts that cutoff at the nipple. For the most part it's a solid ploy to overturn the genre's tendency to over-sexualize women, but it gets ugly when it suggests that Angela the girl/boy having a gay dad is what leads her to become a hissing, feral, cross-dressing homicidal lunatic.
Ginger Snaps (2000): Too Much About Menstruation
It's hard to watch "Ginger Snaps" without thinking about the Columbine shootings. Even though the massacre took place while the movie was filming, it still feels indebted to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and the subsequent spotlight thrown on trench coat wearing lonely teens and their perverse lifestyles. It represents a snapshot of an era when Limp Bizkit topped sales charts and people saw Marilyn Manson as a threat to the nation's youth.
The movie follows a pair of death-obsessed sisters and their struggle after Ginger, the eldest sister played by Katharine Isabelle, gets bitten by a neighborhood werewolf. Before the incident the girls prided themselves on being different, even to the point where they seemingly prevented themselves from menstruating using will alone. Ginger's transformation from goth outsider to sexed out monster-vixen demonizes the status-quo, and hints that her sudden inclusion in the ranks of the vapid party-animal popular crowd is as much to blame for her monstrous metamorphosis as the werewolf bite on her leg.
"Ginger Snaps" uses werewolfism as a shear allegory for puberty. When Ginger's lycanthropy takes hold, she starts her period, grows hair in weird places (like her shoulders), and takes an interest in the opposite sex (and then eats them). Conversely, Bridgette, Ginger's younger sister played by Emily Perkins, doesn't go through her sister's changes and retains her humanity because of it. Her salvation is temporary, however, as Bridgette is doomed in the end to go through the same changes as Ginger, just like the rest of us. Well, minus the whole turning into wolf-monster.
To paraphrase Mike from Mystery Science Theater, this movie has the bacony stench of Canada all over it. There are aboots aplenty in "Ginger Snaps," and while the puberty allegory is clever, they lean on it too heavily for its own good. You could easily watch it with Carrie for a double feature of horror films that rely on frank conversations about menstruation.
House of Wax (1953): Great 1950s Horror Flick
The 1953 version of "House of Wax" came out at the height of 3D's first big rush onto the big screen. Concerned about television's increased presence in the home, studios began flooding cinemas with in-theater gimmicks. Movies like "House on Haunted Hill," which dangled skeletons in front of the screen, or "The Tingler," which famously announced the monster's presence using buzzers in the seats, tried every conceivable method to frighten apparently very easily frightened people. Comparatively the 3D in "House of Wax" feels tame, but the movie is not above selling out. Every twenty minutes or so viewers are treated with can-can girls kicking out towards the screen, or extended scenes of a man playing paddleball in the street. The scenes feel crammed in at the last minute, as if the movie was already finished and then the studio said "Now make it in 3D." Star Vincent Price's character even makes an off-handed comment about the paddle-baller, writing him off as nothing more than a cheap trick to draw people into his in-film house of horrors.
Price plays Professor Henry Jarrod, a once expert sculptor who prides himself on his eerily lifelike wax figures. After losing both his museum and the use of his hands to a particularly nasty case of arson, Jarrod builds a new house of wax and fills it with grizzly scenes of murder and torture. Jarrod proves to be an elegant sensationalist, the type of character that carries smelling salts in his pocket to revive the fainted ladies as they tour his chamber of horrors. But once beautiful women begin to disappear at the hands of a horribly burned mystery man (gee, I wonder), the police begin turning a wary eye to Jarrod's lifelike creations.
"House of Wax" is an excellent representation of early 50s horror, the kind of movie that plays perfectly at midnight along with a gigantic bowl of popcorn. It has everything you could want, a charismatic Vincent Price, an assistant named Igor (here played by a pre-break out Charles Bronson), and a giant vat of bubbling wax that just begs to have someone thrown in to it.
Splinter (2008): Lean Monster Fair
You can tell when a filmmaker is scratching the bottom of the movie monster barrel when the best you can get is splinters that can kill you. "Splinter" doesn't exactly sink that low, but it comes close enough: a mysterious parasite that takes the form of splinters infects a few human hosts and besieges three out of luck motorists in a secluded gas station.
While not offering much in terms of scares, "Splinter" does dish out a delightful amount of squirmy gore. If you've ever wondered how hard it is to cut off someone's arm using a boxcutter, "Splinter" may just be the movie for you. The bone-twisting, amalgamated blob of a monster makes for an interesting sight, and at a breezy 82 minutes, "Splinter" doesn't demand too much of your time. It's a lean monster fair that gets the job done and pulls out before it overstays its welcome. You can watch it and do arts and crafts at the same time!
Dead End (2003): Ridiculously Hokey
I went to college out in the middle of nowhere. In order to get to school from home I had to travel down many a dark, wooded road. Once stretch of road in particular always felt like it went on forever. With trees to the left and to the right and nothing but lonely asphalt out in front of me, I often felt that I had somehow been lured into some purgatory where the highway stretched on forever. I always thought this idea would make for a pretty neat movie. The main character would slowly realize that no matter how long he drives, he just doesn't seem to be getting anywhere. Maybe another car would pass him periodically, or he would keep seeing the same road sign on the side of the road. After he realizes where he is, he frantically tries to make his way out through the woods only to emerge from the other side of the road, as if he looped a small planet. I had always filed this idea away as unexplored horror territory that was just aching to be exploited into a little supernatural gem, or at least a halfway decent "Twlight Zone" episode. Then "Dead End" came along and ruined everything by actually taking that idea and putting it to film, proving, once and for all, that my idea makes for a pretty terrible movie.
Tired of driving down the same stretch of interstate every Christmas, a disgruntled father (played by the perpetually awesome Ray Wise) takes his family down a wooded side-road. Things seem to be going reasonably well until the pick up a mysterious woman in white, and geez, shouldn't they be at Grandma's by now?
Judging by how eerily close "Dead End" mirrors my personal roadside vision, I can't help but think that the movie was written in a car during a particularly dull road trip. It even uses the looping around through the woods idea, which seemed maddeningly creepy to me as I drove down the interstate at 1 in the morning, but when seen on film, turns out to be ridiculously hokey.
Street Trash (1987): Filled With Gross Extremes
When a local liquor store clerk starts selling a mystery booze called Viper to the area homeless, their ranks start thinning out as the drink's rather nasty side effect of causing people to melt into piles of brightly colored goop takes hold. "Street Trash" is the type of movie that couldn't have been made in any other decade than the 1980s.
The film takes place in the neighborhood of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a virtual demilitarized zone inhabited by drug-addled vagabonds stumbling around while wearing gas masks and beating each other to death for booze money. It's the type of neighborhood where well meaning yuppies get murdered just for driving down the street. With its crumbling structures, Greenpoint looks more like post-war Germany than the thriving paradigm of gentrification it is today.
Not many horror movies take place in New York anymore. Twenty years ago, the city was grimy and unsafe, making it a go-to for low-rent exploitation horror. The Warriors played up its gang problem, Jason Takes Manhattan set the world's most famous killer loose in its streets and Escape from New York brought the city to its logical conclusion of becoming a walled off prison-city. "Street Trash" takes this sensibility and pushes it to gross extremes.
If John Waters were to make a horror film, I'd imagine it would come out looking like "Street Trash." Like a lot of horror that came out of New York City at the time, the movie's motive isn't so much to scare the viewer but to brazenly challenge everything that is decent, good and clean in the world. As writer/producer Roy Frumkes put it in an interview with The National Board of Review, his sole purpose in making "Street Trash" was to "to democratically offend every group on the planet," which essentially guaranteed its status in the cult canon.
Candyman (1992): Shakes Up The Slasher Genre
In the realm of horror movie slashers, Freddy, Jason, and Michael Myers tend to get all the glory, while the likes of Pinhead, Pumpkinhead and The Candyman are left to rot in straight-to-video sequels. A latecomer to the slasher genre, "Candyman" tries to shake up the established formula of promiscuous teens harried by a supernatural stalker by concentrating on a single adult victim. Helen (Virginia Madsen) is a PhD candidate working on her thesis on urban myths and their place in modern society. She interviews countless students about the legend of the Candyman (played by Tony Todd and his DEEP. VOICE.), a figure with a hook for a hand that guts anyone that says his name in a mirror five times. Dead set on permanently disproving Candyman's existence, Helen jokingly summons the specter, who appears to her and seems mighty pissed that she questions his existence.
In many ways, Candyman's M.O. resembles that of Freddy Kruger. While he doesn't appear in your dreams, he and Kruger do share a tendency to murder people nearby and make you look like a complete homicidal loony toon. Both Kruger and the Candyman feed off of fear, and lash out as revenge for being brutally executed. But unlike the Nightmare series, which explains away Freddy's origin in practically every installment, "Candyman" doesn't seem pressed to explain itself. Of course Candyman's past is all made clear in its unfortunate sequel, "Candyman II: Farewell to the Flesh," but the first film allows you to come to your own conclusions based on the few hints it drops along the way.
For a slasher movie, "Candyman" shows a respectable amount of restraint. There's still more than enough guttings, boobies and jump scares to meet quota, but it's all set to the creeping hand's pace of a gothic ghost story. It's nice to see a horror movie where the characters don't sit down with a book and dictate the mythology of the character. Considering the film's relatively light touch, even clarifying that the Candyman exists and isn't just a figment of Helen's fractured psyche feels heavy handed.
Story by Kris King
Starpulse contributing writer