Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Unwanted body hair, unwanted parents, unwanted metal massacre: three from the 1980s

The 1980s were strange years for horror—strange and deliriously productive. The production code was a distant memory, boundaries of taste had already been pushed past their breaking point, the home video market exploded. The inevitable result was the transformation of carnage into camp. Horror always lent itself to humour, its premises so often silly in the cold light of day. Hysterical fear collapses easily into hysterical laughter. The dismal side of this was that audiences were frequently encouraged to take distance from rather than become absorbed by the stories, to stay on the surface. Don’t shudder to consider the terror onscreen when you can smugly look down on the terrorized—the victims are so dumb!—and admire the nifty special effects. But with the remake industry now gobbling up rights to ’80s titles, reconsideration is facilitated through fresh releases of the originals on DVD.

The new comedy-horror equation was apparently still in its infancy when
An American Werewolf in London (1981) debuted. Critics felt the film couldn’t make up its mind. This seems more of a slight to writer/director John Landis than a genuine assessment—following Animal House (78) and The Blues Brothers (80) doubts about Landis’ earnestness with regards to the genre may have been in doubt. Yet the film feels lovingly invested in werewolf mythology and the gravity of its protagonist’s dilemma. The humour emerges naturally out of the situation, even if the use of every popular song with “moon” in the title feels awkward and ham-fisted in its irony.

It’s a story about friendship. Two horny, likable, ordinary young guys in puffy coats backpacking through Northern England stray too far from the road and onto the foggy moors. They fall victim to the local lycanthrope. One dies, one lives. The survivor is taken to London, is taken home by a hot nurse, and encounters some unnerving side effects once the full moon rises. The dead friend, lacerated flesh now growing putrid, pays regular visits. He’s stuck wandering the earth until the final trace of his werewolf-killer has been extinguished, so he asks his best pal to suicide, and get it over with. There are captivating dream sequences. Griffin Dunne is terrific as the dead friend with deadpan humour. “Ever talked to a corpse?” he asks. “It’s boring!” And the legendary transformation scene is hideous and completely fixating, you can't take your eyes off of it, a testament to the allure of well-made (by Rick Baker), tactile rubbery effects over blandly smooth CGI.

He always says grace, makes birdhouses in the basement, and gets choked-up while giving a speech at a neighbourhood barbecue. He’s also prepared to butcher his whole family if they can’t realize his demented Republican fantasy of the perfectly wholesome household. But we know that from the beginning, when we see Jerry Blake alter his appearance and close shop at one such failed residence. Inspired by the real case of murderer John List and scripted by crime fiction maestro Donald Westlake—whose own father, like List, once lost his job and didn’t tell his family—The Stepfather (87), directed by Joseph Ruben, is a model of taut low-budget crispness, marred only by the laughably illustrative score from Yes synth-man Patrick Moraz.

There’s no fatuous attempts to explain Blake’s psychosis, while the best subtextual elements—the parallels between Blake and his teenage stepdaughter, the vaguely unseemly romantic vibes emanating from the stepdaughter’s fatherly psychiatrist—remain always just present enough to read without being too winky. There are references, especially to Hitchcock—the newspaper scene, Norman Rockwell setting, and central relationship recall
Shadow of a Doubt (42), while the clean-up scene, the shower and the big knife echo Psycho (60)—but these enrich rather than detract from the film’s distinctive mood. The film made a cult star of Terry O’Quinn, whose performance is so committed, so nuanced, so inside the character of Jerry Blake it’s positively chilling.

Trick or Treat (86), by contrast, probably wouldn’t frighten a small child, unless that child is terrified by big hair. But it uses the genre to generate something so sensitive to teenage experience, so merrily immersed in a subculture, it hardly matters. A much-bullied high school head banger who calls himself Ragman—played by Marc Price, aka Skippy from Family Ties, a masterstroke of casting—starts to dabble in the occult after his favoured metal god dies in a house fire. To the first of many pitch-perfect tracks from Fastway, the opening montage is a tour of Ragman’s tormented adolescent mind, the bedroom lined with handcuffs, action figures, studded collars, a Priest calendar, candles, and a poster of his beloved Sammi Curr—who most closely resembles Dead or Alive’s Pete Burns—gazing down at him from high above. “I can’t believe they cancelled your Halloween concert,” Ragman writes in his fan letter to Sammi, choking back tears. “It’s like you say: Rock’s chosen warriors will rule the apocalypse… I’ve got thoughts in my head that only you would understand…” Identification is total.

“Do you even care who’s running for student council?” a big-haired teen inquires, assuring us that the gulf that separates Ragman from his schoolmates is unbreachable. The question is posed just before the menacing Aryan jocks throw Ragman into a public pool, yet another scene of humiliation from which our hero stamps away, his sneakers squishing loudly with water, as he sputters “Bunch of fucking assholes!” in front of the one popular girl who’s on his side. This attention to detail is characteristic of
Trick or Treat. Its narrative’s beyond ridiculous, and the last act, devoted mostly to killing the ultra-queer, ballet-trained metal beast unleashed from Pandora’s box—actually a slab of vinyl which offers advice on revenge plots and conjures the dead if played backwards—gets a little tiring, but the writers and director Charles Martin Smith (the guy from Never Cry Wolf) never let a moment go by without some sharp shard of wit intervening, while There Will Be Blood cinematographer Robert Elswit surveys the suburban scenery in dusky tones.

Unlike the aforementioned films there is no new, or even good DVD of Trick or Treat. I first saw it as a kid on Super Channel. I taped it and watched it until it suffered from video-rot. The crappy pan-and-scan version I bought for ten bucks off the internet sports no special features, and the cover makes it seem like Ozzy Osbourne—who plays a televangelist—and Gene Simmonswho plays Ragman's DJ/father figure, modeled after Simmons' childhood hero Wolfman Jackare the stars of the movie when the two of them together make up about three—brilliant!—minutes of screen time total. I write this in the hope that this sorry state of affairs will one day change. I'll do the audio commentary track for a case of beer!

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