Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Nightmare (1981)

AKA Nightmare In a Damaged Brain and Blood Splash

I know this film has been discussed to death on the horror blogs, and chances are if you stumble onto this page there’s nothing new in my review that countless others have talked about (I.E. the Savini controversy), but I had this written for a forum and wanted to get it on here. Just my take on an underground classic.

Ask any horror junkie and they'll tell you that one of the great things about mom and pop video stores back in the day is that you never knew what kind of weird stuff you were going to find whenever you ventured into the horror section. Eye catching artwork, strange titles, it was heaven for genre fans. One such find for me was a Compilation called Terror on Tape released in 1983 by Continental. An assortment of clips from various underground horror/cult films from that time, Terror on Tape made me aware of some pretty out there stuff. Out of all the clips shown on Terror on Tape, the ones that intrigued me the most were from Romano Scavolini's Nightmare. It looked supremely fucked up, so naturally it would be right up my alley. Turns out this film had quite the history. Listed as one of the infamous "video nasties" in England, it was banned in various other counties as well, and also had a controversy surrounding it involving Tom Savini. Some film's can't catch a break.

George Tatum (Baird Stafford) is an extremely disturbed metal patient, a homicidal, sexual deviant plagued by recurring nightmares involving a young boy decapitating a woman. He also suffers from violent seizures. His doctors use him as a guinea pig for a radical, new experimental form of treatment. Amazingly, the treatment is declared a success, as the medication he's given has seemed to manage the dreams and George is declared cured, and set free. Unfortunately, his medication only works for so long and George is right back to his old ways. Unable to control his urges, he immediately hits up New York's seedy 42nd Street peep shows, and suffers another seizure in the process. Soon after, George hits the road and travels to Florida, and upon arriving, he sets his sights on a mother, Susan Temper (Sharon Smith) and her children and begins stalking the family.

While it's got all the trappings of your standard 80's slasher fare, such as the gore and sex, what set's Nightmare apart from it's other 80's slasher counterparts is it's overall tone. This one goes a little extra with the sleaze, from the shots of George walking down New York's 42nd Street, with it's sex shops and porn theaters in plain sight, to the scenes of George creeping in Susan's closet, going through her dresser and caressing her underwear, and scenes with George glaring at house from the street or following Susan, her kids and boyfriend to the beach, this film has an undeniable aura of dirtiness and perversion. It's bleak, and it stays with you long after viewing. Scavolini does something interesting when it comes to the sexual content. During the peep show scenes early on there’s the obvious titillation that goes along with a setting like that, but those scenes are also important when it comes to George’s character development. He doesn't go there just to get his jollies off. It's impulsive, an addiction. There is a tragic darkness to those scenes, and I always though the way Scavolini handled the material was unique. Couple that with George's predisposition to violent behavior, and the results aren't pretty. Exploitation with a bit of psychology, although lets be honest, it's WAY more exploitation, but it does have that extra something that other films of the like are missing.

Unfortunately, Nightmare falls a bit flat when it tries to be a mystery. It becomes more than obvious as the film goes along just exactly what George's reoccurring nightmare really is and why he keeps having it. Same thing with the family George stalks, it's no real mystery as to why he targeted THIS particular woman and her kids. This also leads into a massive lapse in logic when it comes to George's doctors. You figure they've spent how many years with him in the asylum AND were so confident in his "recovery" that they released him, that they would know every little detail about him. Yet they seemed to have let slip by a crucial detail about his past and therefore they are completely oblivious when trying to figure out why he went to Florida. All the segments with the doctors conversing and arguing about George's motives requires a bit TOO much suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer. There are a few other goofs here and there but I won't bother mentioning them because honestly, it's not like you haven't seen them in countless other horror films.

Baird Stafford owns this film. His performance of George is the highlight of the film and it's what gives the audience that feeling of uneasiness. George actually doesn't have that much dialogue. On first viewing I had mixed feelings about this, but after subsequent viewings I found it to work wonders. Stafford lets his body language and facial expressions do a lot of the work, and it's more than effective. George isn't your standard 80's stalker/slasher/killer. He's more of the Norman Bates type, and Stafford portrays him in an almost sympathetic light. There is an obvious self-loathing aspect about George. He hates himself for not being able to control his murderous ways. The scenes of George in Susan's closet stand out in particular. In both scenes there is someone else in the room while George is hiding, and Stafford's mannerisms and intense expressions create a very strong sense of uncomfortable tension. The character of Susan Temper on the other hand, aside from the fact that her family is being stalked, she is probably the most unsympathetic stalking victim ever. Sharon Smith does a good job though, playing a wretched bitch. She's totally oblivious to her kids most of the time, spending the majority of her free time with her boyfriend on his houseboat. She even forgets them when they arrive home from school, and when she's with them, she's constantly screaming at them. On the other hand, her son CJ is a little shithead, playing pranks like faking getting stabbed, scaring his babysitter half to death with a creepy dummy and phony phone calls, so her agitation is warranted. Of course he's the only one who notices George when he's peeking at the house and naturally nobody believes him when he tells them a strange man was outside.

I guess I should mention the Tom Savini controversy. Early promotion for the film credited Savini with doing the effects, and Savini was going to sue the filmmakers for using his name, claiming he had nothing to do with the movie. Well, that’s not entirely true. Savini was on the set of the film as an "effects consultant", and there’s a picture to prove it (http://cinematichorrorarchive.files....nightmare7.jpg). But, no, he did not do any of the make up or gore effects. The trailer below credits him too. As for the violence and gore itself, one of the common misconceptions about Nightmare is that it's an all out gorefest. When the kills happen, they are pretty brutal and messy, and the final flashback when we get to witness George's nightmare in it's entirety is a bloodbath but the film does not rely on gore alone. The budget for this was obviously low and therefore the gore does tend to look fake a lot of the time, yet the kill scenes are effective, and again that decapitation flashback is really something else and has become somewhat iconic.

After years of setbacks and delays, Nightmare finally hit DVD last year courtesy of Code Red as a double disc 30th anniversary edition. We get 3 different prints of the film. Personally speaking, I prefer the brand new widescreen transfer on the second disc, but each print has a bit of grain to it, witch I think actually adds to the experience when watching a movie like this. Gives off the vibe of being in a sketchy old cinema back in the day. Also on the DVD is a great making of documentary, audio commentaries by Stafford and F/X man Cleve Hall, plus a clip of another F/X worker Ed French talking about the Savini mess and effects in general. The one flaw of the set is there is a 95 minute interview with director Romano Scavolini in Italian with NO subtitles. I think the reasoning behind that was getting the interview translated would cost more money and set back the release date for the DVD even more. But what I don't get is in the making of documentary, Stafford claims that Scavolini's English is perfect, so why not do the interview in English in the first place? A shame too because I think it'd be a interesting watch. Aside from that it's a must have DVD set.

Nightmare may be flawed in parts, and the pace of the film might be too slow for some, but I find it to be an engaging watch. If you're a fan of films like Peeping Tom, Maniac and Pieces you'll probably take to this one right away if you haven't already seen it. If you haven't, do check it out. Like the films I just mentioned, it takes thing a little bit further than some of it's contemporaries at the time of it's release, plus offers something different than "teens go in the woods, get killed" formula. It's got staying power and a ton of balls.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

R.I.P. Lina Romay 1954-2012

Respect must be paid. Cult film legend and Jess Franco muse Lina Romay sadly passed last week at the age of 57 after a battle with cancer. A stunning beauty if there ever was one, Lina was the epitome of alluring. Whenever she was on screen, your eyes were fixated on her and nothing more. A damn shame, 57 is way to young. Rest in peace Countess Irina!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Toxic Zombies (1980)

AKA Bloodeaters and Forest of Fear

For my first "official" post, I figured I'd make it about a film that's pretty near and dear to me, as I have a bit of history with it. This was the first "obscure" movie I ever saw. I rented it as a young kid, and remembered it being real gory and it had boobs in it. To an 8 year old, that was pretty much perfection. Anyway, it always stuck with me, but until a few years ago when it finally got a DVD release, for the longest time it was pretty hard to track down, so when I finally found an Australian VHS copy, I was ecstatic  I've been a champion of this film ever since.

Government officials order the spraying of a marijuana crop in the hills using an experimental herbicide, Dromax, that has not been approved for use, and not knowing any of it's side-effects when exposed to humans. A federal worker, Cole (writer/director/producer Charles McCrann, billed here as Charles Austin), is all set to take a fishing trip to the region  which he tours annually for work. The two Washington higher-up's that ordered the spraying tell him not to take the trip this time, fearing he'll get suspicious, lying to him about severe flooding in the area. He ignores, and takes his wife (Beverly Shapiro) and brother Jay (Phillip Garfinkel) along with him. The Dromax hits the weed growers, altering them into a zombified, flesh-starved, cannibalistic state, hunting down Cole, his wife and brother, along with anybody else in the area, including two young teens, a girl and her mentally challenged brother who's parents were killed by the infected growers. Both parties eventually cross paths and try to escape the forest.

Toxic Zombies was obviously a labor of love from first time filmmaker Charles McCrann, having done all the heavy lifting on the project. He financed, wrote, produced, directed and edited it, along with staring as Cole. For an amateur filmmaker, he sure seemed to know what he was doing most of the time. It never seems at any point in the movie like he was trying to go beyond his ability. A movie like this doesn't require any fancy camera tricks and things of the like, it's mostly point and shoot but he handles it all more than competently. He also seemed to work very well within his limitations when considering the low budget concerning gore effects. While not as overtly gory as I remembered it being the first time I saw it, the gore effects, while not mind-blowing are indeed quite well done, including a neat looking eye stabbing, a sliced off hand resulting in blood spraying like a fountain, and a pretty big splat of blood as a result of a slit throat (although the actual cut is off-screen). There are also occasional close-up shots of flies flying around the recently deceased characters, which I always thought was a nice way of trying to gross out the audience when certain resources were limited. The poisened pot farmers get some cool scabs, various facial additions and some have their faces whitened to give them a more "infected" look. Nothing really intricate, but you get the effect.

Yes, the titular "zombies" aren't actually zombies in the traditional sense as their not actually dead, just in an altered state as a result of the Dromax. This might explain the other two titles the movies goes by in certain places. Still, they act like traditional zombies, caring about nothing other than eating your flesh. They're not always 100% slow moving though. That might irritate some zombie purists. But, I digress. There's also not that many of them, but I think the idea was to create tension by not knowing where they're coming from or when one's going to jump out. Another cool thing about them is their somewhat intelligent, making torches to burn down a hermits cabin where Cole and the group take brief refuge.

Aside from John Amplas (the titular character in George Romero's Martin) as Phillips, one of the government agents who ordered the spraying of the Dromax, the rest of the cast is made up of first timers, who, surprisingly  do a fairly decent job. Sure, they ham it up on occasion and some of the dialogue comes out sounding somewhat forced at time, but that's bound to happen. I bought McCrann and Bevery Shaprio as husband and wife. The same can be said about the two kids who played the sister and mentally challenged brother. I have no idea if Kevin Hanlon, the actor who played Jimmy is actually handicap, but if he wasn't, bravo! The entire cast seemed to be really into what they were doing and taking everything seriously, and it shows because the good guys here are very likable. You route for them when the zombies are after them, and the brother and sister are made more sympathetic by the fact that their parents were murdered. Before the Dromax hit the dope growers, they don't come across as cliche'd free loving weed smoking hippies as not even 5 minutes into the movie, two of them murder two federal agents. On the other hand, said agents shot down one of the female members of the growers group in cold blood, so they're not exactly 100% good either. The government workers who gave the order to spray the Dromax come off as real bastards, just as intended. Paul Haskin (Briggs) in particular as the top fed asshole. Amplas' character Phillips seems to second guess Briggs for a second when we first meet the two, but ultimately  he comes across as just a stooge. They becomes even more unlikable when they meet up with Cole later on in the film. There's even some nice comic relief in the form of the alcoholic crop duster and his nagging bitch wife. Of course the Dromax affects him too, and he's actually pretty creepy looking coming towards the camera with his bugged out, glazed over eyes.

A few notes about the synth score by Ted Shapiro (I'm guessing actress Bevery's husband or brother?). For the most part, it works pretty well, especially during the chase scenes. There's also some nice, eerie droning sounds in there as well. It would have fit a 70's science fiction film perfectly. Unfortunately, it's not without it's blemishes. The main theme that plays during the film's opening, and at select times throughout the movie, is a blatant rip-off of the Halloween theme. I'm sure it was done as an homage, but it's noticeable right off the bat. The other musical beef I has was when we first meet the brother and sister, the scene has this "cute" (or attempting to sound cute) sounding piano score. White the music itself is pleasant  given the context of the scene, it comes off as REALLY corny. If I can nit-pick just a bit more, the picture is a tad bit grainy  Not really a huge deal, as you can still see everything, but I figured it was worth a mention. The transfer on the DVD is the same as the VHS, so don't expect an upgrade.

Not to end this on a tragic note, but sadly Charles McCrann died in the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001. He was the Sr. vice-president of a financial-services company who had an office in the WTC. This was his only film. It's a shame, because it would have been interesting to see what else he could have done with a bit more experience  He clearly had some talent behind the camera, and was obviously a fan. But, he left us a fun little B-movie. That's the key word here, fun. Chalk it up to childhood nostalgia if you must, but I always have a blast whenever I watch this. Of course, it's not a masterpiece, and it wasn't made with the intention of being on. It was made by a director and cast/crew who's hearts were all in the right place, and it's worth 90 minutes of your time. Toxic Zombies might not be considered "essential" in the grand scheme of things, but to me, it's a classic.