Summer Camp Slasher Memories

After writing the last post about Halloween movie suggestions (including Sleepaway Camp), I saw that the New Beverly was going to screen The Burning and Friday the 13th on Saturday night. Of course, like Mr. Moviefone, I said, “I’m in!” As I’ve mentioned in these pages before, it’s so much more fun to watch the old classics (?) theatrically with an actual audience than at home.

The Burning (1981) used to be a real gray-market obscurity until it was released uncut by MGM on DVD in 2007. The film has several points of interest. It features early roles for Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter. While he plays a sort of overgrown camper urging the others to have sex, she barely appears in the movie, mostly in crowd scenes cheering people on or cowering in fear.

Another noteworthy fact is that this is an early Miramax Film—that’s right, Bob and Harvey Weinstein. It was filmed in upstate New York and, as with Sleepaway Camp, the accents really shine through, particularly in the case of the camp bully, Glazer (Larry Joshua), who sounds like he studied acting with the Bowery Boys. But Joshua went on to tons of film and television work, including—ironically—an episode of the “Friday the 13th” TV series.

The movie is also strange in that the campers and the counselors are all about the same age, so it’s hard to tell who’s who and why one is acting like an adult while another, who looks the same, is acting like a kid.

The Weinsteins obviously rushed it into production to capitalize on the success of previous year’s Friday the 13th, even securing the services of Tom Savini for the gore effects. It’s trashier than its predecessor, perhaps giving a nod to William Lustig’s ultra-sleazy Maniac (1980), which Savini also worked on. The print the New Beverly showed was faded, pink and was unfortunately missing the infamous raft murder scene during which most of the surviving cast is memorably dispatched by the killer, which makes the rest of the film rather dull aside from the hilarious 1980s fashions, cheesy dialogue and Rick Wakeman’s often incongruous score.

Here’s the missing raft scene:

The second film on the bill was a masterpiece in comparison—Sean Cunningham’s original Friday the 13th (1980). The New Beverly showed a print struck in 2008, so the colors were good, and it was fun to compare the assets of two low-budget slashers from the same era. Everything about Friday is superior: the acting (six degrees of Kevin Bacon), the cinematography and the music. And while the characters in The Burning fade into generic obscurity, Friday brought us a horror icon: 1950s game show star Betsy Palmer’s Mrs. Voorhees, with her predatory mouthful of huge teeth and chant of “Kill ‘er, Mommy,” which was also repeated on Harry Manfredini’s ki-ki-ki ma-ma-ma- theme. And let’s face it—when Kevin Bacon gets the arrow skewered up through his throat, it’s a really nice effect, even after all these years.

I was working at the Niles 31 Drive-In Theater when the film was released, and we must’ve played it for at least a month on one of our two screens, whether it was the main, supporting or third feature.

The soundtrack was piped into the concession stand (where I served the popcorn), so consequently there are sounds and lines of dialogue that were burned into my brain and remain to this day, especially Manfredini’s music and Palmer’s “Why, I’m Mrs. Voorhees…an old friend of the Christies,” and “Look what you did to him!” And as with De Palma’s Carrie, it was fun to run outside at the right time to hear an entire parking lot full of moviegoers scream in unison.

Watching the film last night took me back to that era, and I was reminded of a couple of the murders that I always found funny. After having sex with Jack (Bacon), Marcie (Jeannine Taylor) goes to the use the facilities and—after doing a serviceable Katharine Hepburn impression in the mirror—sees the killer approaching with an axe.

But before she gets it in the noggin, there’s a quick shot of her crying with her eyes closed, looking more like she just got grounded by her father than that she’s about to get her face ventilated. And when Alice (Adrienne King) goes after Mrs. Voorhees with the machete to deal the final blow, the slo-mo shot of Palmer reacting in horror is priceless. I just wish the New Beverly had paired Friday with Sleepaway instead of Burning for a perfect camp double-feature.

Another semi-obscure killer camping movie—also filmed in New York—is Madman, whose only distinguishing feature is that it includes one of the few film appearance of Gaylen Ross (from Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead). Like Candyman, the film’s killer appears when his name is called out, but it’s pretty much of a trudge through familiar territory.

There are only so many killer camp films one can devise a scenario for, so industrious filmmakers made college slashers (The House on Sorority Row), babysitter slashers (When a Stranger Calls)—even religious slashers (Alice, Sweet Alice). Probably the most controversial slasher film is 1984′s Silent Night, Deadly Night, which featured a psycho Santa and aired grim television spots during the holiday season, causing parents’ groups to go ballistic.

By 1986, the genre was pretty much washed-up, due both to a glut of copycat titles and censor backlash. The Fridays kept getting tamer and tamer until—like porn with the actual sex edited out—there was really no point to them. This paved the way for gentler stuff like Wes Craven’s yawn-worthy Scream series and the PG-13 “eek, I’m scared” movies of the 2000s. It was refreshing to see hard-core horror come roaring back with the likes of the Saw series, which would have been condemned back in the 1980s, but of course the inevitable glut of remakes came with it, some good, some execrable.

Alexandre Aja’s remake of Craven’s 1977 The Hills Have Eyes (2006) was actually a vast improvement. And Marcus Nispel’s take on Hooper’s classic 1974 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (2003) was a well-judged, suspense-filled update.

How shocking it was, then, that Nispel’s reboot of Friday the 13th was so lame. He could have taken the plot of the original and gone practically anywhere with it. Instead, he piled on the drug-addled, oversexed teens, and turned Jason into more of a survivalist who property was being trespassed upon. The gore wasn’t even very good. Some fansites clamored for Palmer to have a role in it, but as things turned out, maybe it’s for the best that it didn’t happen.

Halloween Movie Viewing Suggestions

It’s that time of year again…and we’ve got a whole weekend to watch some classics and/or guilty pleasures to get us in the mood for Halloween night. Here are this year’s picks:

1. Night of the Living Dead (1990). Special effects maestro Tom Savini took the directorial reins and George Romero provided the screenplay for this thoughtful remake of the 1968 classic that preserves the plot while providing some new twists, most of which work quite well. Casting is good—Tony Todd, before he was Candyman and the creepy mortician from the Final Destination films, plays Ben, and Patricia Tallman is Barbara. Tom Towles, the twisted sidekick from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, is Harry.

Tallman’s Barbara is not helpless and semi-comatose like Judith O’Dea’s original. Instead, she’s more like Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley from Alien—tough and in control, though even she gets crazy as events intensify, and Towles adds a welcome edge of sleaze to the character of Harry Cooper. The zombie makeup is impressive, but since it’s rated R, it’s not as gory as the original Dawn and Day. Still, it provides a consistent level of suspense because Romero does a good job of shattering our expectations along the way.

2. Piranha (1978). I thought Alexandra Aja’s 2010 remake was okay, but here’s a classic case of spinning gold out of an incredibly low budget. Joe Dante directed (and John Sayles wrote the screenplay) the original for an estimated $600,000, and he really made the most of his limited resources. Without the digital effects team (or 3D) that Aja had at his disposal, he still does a mighty good job with limited resources. Sure, you can tell that the carnivorous school swimming by is just a bunch of fish painted on a glass plate, but that only adds to the low-budget fun.

The screenplay is a perfect blend of classic horror and knowing camp, Pino Donaggio’s lush score is wonderful, and it’s got a cast to die for. Corman legend Dick Miller (A Bucket of Blood) is the sleazy resort owner who refuses to cancel the grand opening. Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) is the scientist who created the mutant fish. Paul Bartel (Eating Raoul) is a camp counselor. And Barbara SteeleBarbara Steele!—is the government official who assures us that there’s nothing left to fear (yeah, right). The makeup is provided by a young Rob Bottin (The Thing), and it’s great. Who can forget the scene in which they pull Keenan Wynn out of the water and see that the flesh of his legs have been eaten away to the bone? Piranha is truly B-movie heaven.

3. Sleepaway Camp (1983). Some films are born for cult movie status, and this nasty little slasher—whether intentionally or accidentally—easily earns that crown. Back in 1983, taking a cue from the popularity of the Friday the 13th series, writer/director Robert Hiltzik decided to up the ante by making the plot even sleazier and the gore even nastier than the Paramount films.

As everyone knows by now, it’s the story of a strange little girl named Angela (Felissa Rose) who is tormented by the other kids at summer camp and is defended by her cousin, Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) and would-be boyfriend Paul (Christopher Collet). As this drama is going on, counselors and campers are being offed in various gruesome ways, including death by boiling water.

There are many factors that make the film so off-kilter. All the kids at camp are really cruel and foul-mouthed, and they wear hilariously tight and small 1980s clothing. If you thought Nancy Allen’s shorts in Carrie looked like they were cutting off her circulation, you’ll be blown away by the genital-highlighting gear worn by this gang.

And since the movie was made in upstate New York, they all have the “N’Yawk” accent and the attitude. Desiree Gould, who plays Angela’s Aunt Martha, delivers a jaw-droppingly bad performance, which actually works in the film’s favor. There are also kinky flashbacks that show how Angela became an orphan and started living with her aunt and cousin. And the shock ending is really a shock ending!

None of the sequels are as good as the original, although the second one, starring Bruce Springsteen’s sister Pamela as Angela, now all grown up but still insane, is fun. In 2000, Hiltzik’s film was rediscovered by a whole new audience on DVD and the director, Rose and Gould all became cult stars and started making more movies and convention appearances. There’s even a reunion movie currently in production with all the originals involved, but I don’t have high hopes for it. It sounds a little too opportunistic. You can’t catch lightning in a bottle twice.

4. Tenebrae (1982). Remember when it was exciting to anticipate the release of the next Argento film? Well, Tenebrae should bring back happy memories, because it’s easily his finest giallo. Comprehensible, perfectly plotted and packed with suspense and splat, it’s excellent Halloween viewing.

Tony Franciosa stars as Peter Neal, an American author of mystery thrillers, who is in Rome promoting his newest, “Tenebrae.” He receives a letter from a crazed fan who says his books have inspired him to go on a killing spree, and sure enough, the bodies start piling up. Daria Nicolodi (Argento’s former squeeze) co-stars as Neal’s devoted assistant, who pitches in to help him solve the mystery, and John Saxon (A Nightmare on Elm Street) is his agent.

The stars of the film, though, are the cinematography and set pieces. Argento’s Suspiria cinematographer, Luciano Tovoli, provides some great stuff here, especially when his craning camera prowls all around the outside of an apartment building of a soon-to-be victim, elongating the suspense to the point of unbearability. And Argento enjoys ratcheting up the suspense. Just as our nerves have been stretched to the breaking point watching a young women try to escape the killer, he throws in a vicious attack dog that also starts to pursue her!

The gore is great. A victim’s arm is hacked off with an axe, and her dismembered stump decorates the walls with crimson for what seems like forever before the killer finishes the job. And the film does a really great job with the mystery. Dropping hints all along the way, Argento keeps the killer’s identity a secret until the truly mind-blowing climax.

I first saw Tenebrae on VHS in heavily-edited form as the ridiculously-titled Unsane, and it was still good! But the easily available, completely uncut DVDs and Blu-Rays are the way to go. And it’s got a great score by members of Goblin that you can dance to!