Category Archives: Valley of the Cheapjack Franchises

Valley of the Mid-Range Franchises: The Stepfather

For a long time I didn’t really consider The Stepfather movies to be slasher flicks: Slightly too-highbrow (the first one, at least) and more in common with the rush of late-80s demented family member/one night stand/roommate/nanny thrillers.

However, the titular character does kill his way through the three movies, laying to waste those who disrupt his vision of familial bliss. That the films are less about a string of victims and more focused on the facade created by the stepfather is relevant, but they’re cool films so let’s love them anyway…

the stepfather 1987THE STEPFATHER

3.5 Stars  1987/18/85m

“Jerry Blake loves taking care of the family. Any family.”

Director: Joseph Ruben / Writers: Carolyn Lefcourt, Brian Garfield & Donald E. Westlake / Cast: Terry O’Quinn, Jill Schoelen, Shelley Hack, Stephen Shellen, Charles Lanyer, Stephen E. Miller.

Body Count: 4

Laughter Lines: (to the grieving sibling of a murder victim) “Why don’t you get on with the rest of your life and forget about it?”


As the product of a family where the parents have stayed together for over 40 years, I don’t have much insight into what it’s like to grow up with a single parent and have a prospective new partner enter the scene, disrupting the routine that you likely cling on to in the wake of a divorce or loss.

I can only imagine what it must be like to have someone try to be your new best friend, especially if they glow with a plastic Ward Cleaver aura, one that feels so forced that, in the wake of films like this, you’d automatically suspect them of having some literal skeletons in their closet.

For Stephanie Maine (then-burgeoning scream queen Jill Schoelen), this is a nightmare come true as, after her father’s death, her mother has remarried Jerry Blake – smilin’ family guy, realtor, doting dad, unhinged psychopath. Beyond the expected issues of coping with her loss, Stephanie gets expelled from school and blames all of her problems on Jerry and his transparent attempts to reach her: The usual ‘champ’, ‘slugger’ platitudes, buying her a puppy etc…

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Of course, we know better having seen ‘Jerry’ dramatically alter his appearance and walk out on his slain previous family in the prologue, slipping effortlessly into a new life.

At a party hosted by the family, Stephanie gets a glimpse of Jerry’s hidden persona as he throws an anger hissy in the basement where he thinks he’s out of sight. Over hearing the tale of the still uncaptured family-slayer, Stephanie begins to believe Jerry is that guy.

Like the thrillers that came in its wake, a large midsection of The Stepfather concerns Jerry thwarting Stephanie’s attempts to out him, while mother Susan looks on, thinking all is rosy. He also finds time to murder Steph’s shrink and mocking up an accident, the event that eventually brings them closer, that is until he flips about her kissing her crush on the doorstep.

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Jerry finally decides enough is enough and begins sculpting a new life in preparation for getting shot of Susan and Stephanie and starting anew elsewhere, but unfortunately for him, not only does he confuse his identities, but the brother of his last wife has been busy tracking him down and is about to show up with a gun in hand. Things shunt into slasher gear when Stephanie is attacked and has to save herself.

O’Quinn’s commitment to what could easily have been a campy, over-hammed role as Dad is what carries both this and the sequel beyond the contrivances of the plot (more pertinent in the follow-up). His natural intensity, later seen in Lost, and a talent for balancing his below-the-surface psychotic tendencies with the outward guy-next-door charm is genuinely unsettling – the way he posits “maybe they disappointed him?” as a possible motive for the murders is chilling – and a series of glares serves to remind the viewer that we know a lot more than his family and friends.

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The many stares of the Stepfather

For her part, Schoelen oozes likeability – as she did in all her horror roles – and rises to the challenge of final girl-dom with aplomb, using broken mirror shards and sledges to her advantage. The only weird thing about it is that, despite being in her early twenties during production, her brief topless shower moment seems wrong as her character is said to be fifteen. It’s buoyed in a way by some frontal nudity of O’Quinn, courtesy of a reflection in a mirror, but still seems weird.

A fine film, albeit with a narrative that’s been aped too many times to reap its rightful returns, but it seems over a little too soon and, I think, could work well in mini-series format if they ever wanted to resurrect it. Oh wait, they did…

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STEPFATHER II

3 Stars  1989/18/88m

A.k.a. Stepfather 2: Make Room for Daddy

“Tonight – Daddy’s coming home to slice more than just the cake!”

Director: Jeff Burr / Writer: John Auerbach / Cast: Terry O’Quinn, Meg Foster, Caroline Williams, Jonathan Brandis, Henry Brown, Mitchell Laurance.

Body Count: 5


Having miraculously survived the wounds inflicted on him at the end of the first film, Jerry is now locked up in an institution in Puget Sound, where the new doctor, Dr Danvers, is keen to help him and find out his real identity – but we know Jerry will have other plans.

After winning the doc’s trust, he dispatches him and a security guard before making his escape and rocking up in a Los Angeles suburb ‘for the family’ where he sets himself up as Dr Gene Clifford, a therapist specialising in familial stuff.

Before long, Gene is involved with local divorcee Carol and her sad son Todd. While he disappears her ex husband forever into a compactor, Carol’s friend Matty (Williams) begins to suspect the good doctor is not all he seems, using her access as local mail handler to find out that the actual Gene Clifford is not only dead, but was also black.

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Of course, Jerry/Gene isn’t going to let anybody ruin his plans for suburban family bliss and engineers her out of the picture so he can hurry up and wed Carol. A violent climax at the aborted wedding ramps things up the camp-o-meter a fair way, but, as before, O’Quinn’s performance always teeters on the brink.

The infamous Weinstein’s insisted on more gore for this follow-up, which O’Quinn flat out refused to participate in, which explains some of the insert-shots of various pools of blood etc, moving the property closer to a sort of Freddy-down-the-block slasher series, which probably explains why the leading man opted out of returning for any more rounds.

Either way, Meg Foster’s eyes are still the scariest thing in this film.

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STEPFATHER III

3 Stars  1992/18/106m

A.k.a. Stepfather 3: Father’s Day

Director: Guy Magar / Writers: GM & Marc B. Ray / Cast: Robert Wightman, Priscilla Barnes, Season Hubley, David Tom, John Ingle, Dennis Paladino, Stephen Mendel, Mario Roccozzo.

Body Count: 5

Laughter Lines: “Maybe he’s not who he says he is?” / “Yeah, well with any luck maybe he’s Kevin Costner or Tom Cruise?”


Terry O’Quinn’s (wise) decision to not return to the series, probably for fear of being typecast, means that this third and very final entry required the biggest convolution of all: Plastic surgery.

That’s right, fresh from escaping from the same institution again, Family Guy gets back-alley surgery from a greasy, chain-smoking dude who then gets his throat cut with a surgical saw for his trouble.

Nine months later, ‘Keith Grant’ is the new guy in the small town of Deerview, working at the plant nursery, volunteering to dress up as the Easter Bunny at a church fete, and hunting for a new mother-child combo to call his own. Although, Stepfather III smells like it’s trying to create some kind of mystery as to who it is who’s had surgery, but entirely fails to disguise it in any way.

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Said schmuckette is Christine (Barnes), amicably divorced and with wheelchair-bound son Andy, whose condition is psychosomatic (so we all know he’ll rise up outta that thing at the perfect moment). After three dates, Keith and Christine are married, but detective-mad Andy is suspicious of his new stepfather.

The perfect family illusion Keith has been desperate for begins to shatter when Andy goes to stay with his father for awhile, leading psychodad to begin courting another single mom, Jennifer, and hatching plans to get rid of Christine, but abandons them when Andy comes back earlier than planned.

Andy, meanwhile, becomes convinced Keith is Jerry Blake/Gene/whoever else, and recruits Father Brennan to help him prove it, but of course those who get in the way end up shoveled to death, raked, or driven off the road.

A woodchipper-tastic finale brings forth the moment when Andy finally lifts his feet from the wheelchair, accompanied by some rousing superhero music, and he’s forced to finish ‘dad’ off with some ferocity, ensuring there’s no amount of plastic surgery that can resurrect the Stepfather for Part 4.

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The video sequel needs to be trimmed along with Keith’s plants, clocking in about 15 minutes longer than necessary, but Wightman does fine in O’Quinn’s big shoes, though the script leans towards tacky elements here and there and Christine is the most naive of the Stepfather’s victims to date. In fact, all through the series women are made to look a bit dumb, eager to get married ASAP despite knowing fuck all about this man, and it’s down to the children to strike the final blow at the end. Hope they use those guilt coupons wisely going forward.

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THE STEPFATHERthe stepfather remake 2009

2009/15/101m  2 Stars

“Daddy’s home.”

Director: Nelson McCormick / Writer: J.S. Cardone / Cast: Dylan Walsh, Sela Ward, Penn Badgley, Amber Heard, Sherry Stringfield, Paige Turco, Jon Tenney.

Body Count: 7


I saw this once ages ago and can’t remember much about it, beyond the fatal error of switching out the final girl to a final boy, a guy from a military background, no less – where’s the fear for our hero(ine) in that?

At the time it was just the latest in the factory line of people-remember-this-title-so-let’s-remake-it churn-outs, written by Cardone, who had also penned the risible Prom Night upchuck (directed by McCormick) and, back in ’81, The Slayer. O’Quinn was reportedly offered a cameo and sensibly said no. Sela Ward has an utterly thankless role as the new wife and Amber Heard spends most of the running time in a bikini, highlighting just how little thought went into this watered-down PG-13 retread.

No.

* * *

So, a quality series in terms of production values. O’Quinn was definitely the high point and the conservative/anti-conservative subtext of the whole thing is interesting even today, with all this “I like tradition,” rhetoric Steppie likes the spout.

As a slasher series, it’s definitely low-key, with far more emphasis on the character’s manipulative psychosis over a blade-wielding maniac chasing skimpy babes, which is refreshing in a way. Remember it next time you’re messaged on Tinder.

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Blurbs-of-interest: Jill Schoelen was also in Cutting ClassThe Phantom of the OperaPopcorn, and When a Stranger Calls Back; Stephen Shellen was also in American Gothic; Stephen E. Miller was in Funeral Home and Matinee; Jeff Burr directed Texas Chainsaw Massacre III and Night of the Scarecrow; Caroline Williams had final girl duties in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and was also in Hatchet III; Guy Magar later directed Children of the Corn: Revelation; Priscilla Barnes was in The Back Lot Murders; David Tom was in Dead Scared; Stephen Mendel was in Jack Frost; Amber Heard was the title character in All the Boys Love Mandy Lane.

Valley of the Cheapjack Franchises: Harvest of Fear & The Path of Evil

I picked this pair of cheapies up in Bali about a decade ago (!) and the discs were warped in a strange way that no others were and would only play on one DVD player, which I no longer have. Oh well, good job they sucked.

*

harvest of fear 2004 dvd

HARVEST OF FEAR

2 Stars  2004/87m

“Killing is in the air.”

Director: Brad Goodman / Writers: Ted Pfeifer & Chris Pfeifer / Cast: Ryan Deal, Carrie Finklea, Justin Ament, Don Alder, Thomas Nabhan, Curt Hanson, Tobias Anderson, Ted Pfeifer, Ina Strauss, Kristen Luman.

Body Count: 18

Laughter Lines: “Although there have been nine murders, we’re not ready to say any of this is connected.”


Another garden variety Friday the 13th Xerox made for the horror shelf at the DVD store, this time concerning murders in the small Oregon town of Devil’s Lake (of course…), which are identical to crimes that happened two decades earlier.

Medical intern Billy and his object of lust, Stacey, attempt to investigate the crimes that the local cops are too dumb to link either to one another or the earlier murders (see Laughter Lines) but also ignore the stalking behaviour of Stacey’s temperamental ex-boyfriend, Jake.

Meanwhile, college kids following ye olde tradition of getting drunk and having sex are being slashed to ribbons by a masked fiend. Never mind that their friends are dead, they decide they’re safe enough to continue partying until they meet inevitable sticky ends. On no less than three separate occasions, couples wander into dark deserted areas and then split up on the understanding that one of them will “be right back”.

Elsewhere, the film adheres to even the most outdated of cliches, including the old man who nobody listens to, and there’s even a hick-accented narrator book ending the film with a summary of events.

The writers (one of whom plays a deputy) have obviously tried to furnish their tale with twists and a litter of potential suspects, and the identity of the killer proves to be a little beyond the expected, but the actors and the dialogue their saddled with doesn’t stack up and the whole thing has an amateur night feel to it.

*

THE PATH OF EVIL the path of evil 2005

1.5 Stars  2005/113m

“After 20 years… the serial killer has returned.”

 Director/Writer: Brad Goodman / Writers: Justin Ament & Ted Pfeifer / Cast: Justin Ament, Ryan Deal, Carrie Finklea, Don Alder, Katie O’Grady, Thomas Nabhan, Brad Goodman, Ted Pfeifer, Curt Hanson.

Body Count: 12

Laughter Lines: “Devil’s Lake, contrary to its name, is not an evil place.”


Credit for reassembling the surviving cast members from the first film - and even resurrecting a couple of them from the dead! Here endeth the good.

The tables are turned as far as the plot goes, this time focusing on Jake (Ament), the asshole ex-boyfriend from before, as he recuperates from his wounds and tries to win back indecisive girlfriend Stacey, and work out who is behind the renewed spate of killings, six months on from the events of Harvest of Fear.

Difficult enough to digest that Jake is now supposed to be the sympathetic hero and already knowing the probable identity of the killer, the whole project is fleshed out to an excruciating length with scenes of a criminology student writing a paper on the convicted killer.

Ultimately, this subplot has no bearing on the outcome, which not only feels twice as long but also twice as boring as the first time around, grinding on relentlessly for almost two hours and withholding much of the killing until the end, though mercifully all the major players are done away with, erasing hope for a third go-round – although death didn’t stop them before.

Blurbs-of-interest: Carrie Finklea was in Simon Says; Tobias Anderson was in Destroyer.

Valley of the (not so) Cheapjack Franchises: The Texas Chainsaw Remakes

Probably unpopularly, all of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre canon ranks as one of my least favourite series’ in horror. The 1974-1994 set (plus that godawful 2013 instalment) do next to nothing for me, but what of the Platinum Dunes/Michael Bay ‘re-imaginings’?

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THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE

3.5 Stars  2003/18/95m

“What you know about fear…doesn’t even come close.”

Director: Marcus Nispel / Writer: Scott Kosar / Cast: Jessica Biel, Eric Balfour, Erica Leerhsen, Jonathan Tucker, Mike Vogel, R. Lee Ermey, Andrew Bryniarski, Terrence Evans, Marietta Marich.

Body Count: 7


Michael Bay has much to answer for, and I imagine a mob of horror fans would crucify him for being the poster boy of the remake era, which was a quiet zone of horror filmmaking around 2003, until the announcement of a “re-imagining” of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Twelve years on, it’s an easy equation to comprehend. The 1974 film was notorious, banned in numerous countries, and had a name that is far more suggestive than any of the content. Sooner or later, someone was going to say “Enough with sequels! Remake it!”

Fortunately for me, I have no strong feelings towards the original. I first saw it at a midnight screening in the late 90s and it was a headache of a film. My friend turned to me halfway through and said: “This is probably the most fucked up thing I’ve ever seen.” I found it entertaining enough, but not the monstrosity we all expected (same with The Exorcist, which also lost its UK ban in the same time period), and nothing I really cared about seeing again.

Authentic 70s names: Erin, Andy, Pepper, Morgan, Kemper

Our authentic 70s characters: Erin, Andy, Pepper, Morgan, Kemper

The 2003 over-do remains traceably loyal to the ‘true’ story: A van of five teenagers, on their way back from Mexico and on to see Lynyrd Skynyrd, roll into a nightmare. Stopping to help out a girl walking down the road is the grave error they make, as she wastes little time in putting a pistol in her mouth. They find that summoning help is difficult and the locals seem less than fazed about their dilemma, one which they soon argue about: Leave the body and scram, or wait for help?

From here, the Dead Teenager conventions come into play: Two of the group go to the creepy house nearby where one vanishes, looking for him reveals Leatherface, who gives chase wielding the titular weapon. Toss in the imitation-Sheriff (inimitably played by R. Lee Ermey), who the kids wrongly trust, and they sink deeper into the nightmare.

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Before long it’s all down to off-the-marks final girl Erin (Biel), whose luck just keeps getting worse: Everybody she calls on for help is part of the extended family of loons, and she’s soon at their mercy until she manages to escape. From there, it’s abrasive cat and mouse scenes as Leatherface stalks her through the woods, an abandoned shack, eventually to the abattoir.

Whereas the old film pre-dated our understanding of killed-one-by-one plot structure, and is therefore only arguably a slasher film at all, there is no such uncertainty in the remake: We know Erin is going to be the last one standing, we know the others will be laid to waste (it’s just a case of picking the order in which they go), and we hope she’s able to exact a gruesome revenge on her captors.

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So everything works on a mechanical level, but the over-stylized look of the film begins to work against it after awhile, and the fact that Wrong Turn had been released just a few months earlier hoovers up much of the ‘originality’ of the ‘re-imagining': Dirt, grime, rednecks who don’t give a shit.

Everything is very dark and earthy, supposedly to give it an authentic look, but at times it goes too far, while it clashes with the youngsters, who aren’t convincingly ’70s kids’ at all, no matter if you deduct cellphones and brand names, the language they use and even their names are too contemporary to wash. Gunnar Hansen – the original Leatherface – pointed out that the film was shot at chest-level to keep Jessica Biel’s bust in the frame as much as possible, not to mention the moments where her white blouse gets very, very wet.

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Roger Ebert famously gave this film a rare no-stars, and his reasoning is valid enough, but it’s still a solid remake, not too entrenched in the cynicism which was to come with every other horror title they began stuffing through the machine. It’s just that they ‘re-imagined’ it with too little subtlety, so it’s more of a box-ticking exercise than a grafted horror experience.

Blame it for ushering in the dawn of the remake, but enjoy it for breaking out of the tame, studio-slick horror that was beginning to wane in the wake of Scream.

 *

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THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING

2 Stars 2006/18/92m

“Witness the birth of fear.”

Director: Jonathan Liebesman / Writers: Sheldon Turner & David J. Schow / Cast: Jordana Brewster, Matthew Bomer, Diora Baird, Taylor Handley, R. Lee Ermey, Andrew Bryniarski, Lee Tergesen, Terrence Evans, Marietta Marich, Kathy Lamkin, Cyia Batten, Lew Temple.

Body Count: 10


While I remember going to see this at the movies with my pal Earl, I don’t remember buying the DVD, but there it was on my shelf, possibly unwatched.

As the 2003 film ended the trail of horror left by Leatherface and the Hewitts, the only logical next step to cash-in on its success was to go back… back to “The Beginning”. Ish.

Starting with a very brief 1939-set intro that sees Thomas Hewitt born in a meat-packing factory, while the credits whirr, there are old sepia photos and doctor’s notes about his deformity and within minutes it’s 1969 and Tommy loses his job at the slaughterhouse when it’s closed down as the town dies (economically, it’s not chainsawed to pieces).

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He flips and kills the owner, leading to his clan intervening and ultimately shooting the local Sheriff (“the only law enforcement left”) and taking up cannibalism in the blink of an eye.

Elsewhere, a jeep of two couples heading to Austin where brothers Eric and Dean are going to enlist and be carted off to Vietnam, hurtles towards the Hewitt residence. With their girlfriends in tow for one last weekend of fun, it all goes to shit when they’re accosted by a motorcycling robber, hit a cow at high speed, and crash.

They believe they’re in luck when ‘the Sheriff’ turns up almost immediately, but when he guns down the would-be robber, something seems just a bit more than ‘off’. Eric’s girlfriend, Chrissie, was hurtled into the long grass in the crash and hides while her friends are assaulted and driven away to be tortured and eaten.

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The rest of the film is largely a re-tread (pre-tread?): Chrissie sneaks her way into the house to try and save them, but is too late and eventually ends up caught and invited to dinner, in a scene reminiscent of the 1974 film that was never ‘re-imagined’ into the remake. So samey is it, that she’s chased through the woods to the slaughterhouse for the finale! And, being that we know the Hewitts weren’t caught for a few more years, things don’t look good for anybody surviving this one.

Production values are high, as before, this time with Jonathan Liebesman’s slightly more grounded direction, but whatever appealed to me in 2006 has since gone: Watching the film in 2015 was a pure endurance test. On the one hand it brings nothing new to the table, a few explanations of character attributes aren’t reason enough to make a whole new movie, and it also made contact with, and crossed, my ‘line’.

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My ‘line’ exists where fun entertainment ends and cruelty begins. While the 2003 film wasn’t exactly doing cartwheels of joy, it was exhilarating without being stupidly violent; Here, the film practically revels in demonstrating how gross it is, with peeled off faces, blood rain, chainsaw vivisections… But not an ounce of a good time. A scene in which a dying character says they can no longer feel their limbs and are cold is upsetting, not exhilarating.

Plenty of people will say “well, that’s real horror” etc., but horror is like comedy – we all find different things acceptable or funny. A horror film without the re-equilibrium is just depressing, which is why the first one gets a pass and this doesn’t. There’s no element of mystery or surprise, and rooting for a survivor is futile – The Beginning is just killing for the sake of it.

The film skates over how quickly the family turns from struggling to evil, embracing their newfound cannibalism in what must be no longer than twenty-four hours, and the script makes Ermey the focal point over and above both Leatherface and the tormented teenagers, unable to realise that what made him so good before was moderation. He’s a one-liner away from Freddy Krueger levels of camp at times.

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In the much thinner plus column, Jordana Brewster is a solid heroine, slightly more believable than Jessica Biel was as a child of the time. She has an opportunity to escape without being detected, but is loyal that she goes back to try and save a friend she can hear screaming elsewhere. It’s that pivot scene that tells us a lot about her character – she’s admirably unselfish, regardless of the eventual cost.

A depressing experience in all, although better than the original sequels and the 2013 film, serving only to compound my resistance to this series as a whole: It’s just not very good.

Blurbs-of-interest: Erica Leerhsen was also in Wrong Turn 2 (ha!) and Lonely Joe; Terrence Evans was in The Pumpkin Karver; Diora Baird was in the even worse Stan Helsing; Lee Tergesen was in The Collection; Cyia Batten was in Killer Movie; Andrew Bryniarski was in The Curse of El Charro; Marcus Nispel directed the Friday the 13th remake; Jonathan Liebesman directed Darkness Falls.

Valley of the Cheapjack Franchises: CABIN BY THE LAKE

WTF – Judd Nelson’s own slasher movie series!? Well, nearly… He got to do two of them. For TV.

CABIN BY THE LAKE

3 Stars  2000/91m

“Most writers bring their characters to life. He brings his to death.”

Director: Po Chih Leong / Writer: C. David Stephens / Cast: Judd Nelson, Hedy Burress, Michael Weatherly, Susan Gibney, Bernie Coulson, Colleen Wheeler, Cam Cronin, Bob Dawson, G. Patrick Currie, Daniella Evangelista.

Body Count: 7

Dire-logue: “[The director’s] thinking of changing the title.” / “I was thinking of taking a higher road…” / “It’s a dead teenager movie!”

RETURN TO CABIN BY THE LAKE

2.5 Stars  2001/15/86m

“Stanley’s back. Some director’s live for their work. He kills for it.”

Director: Po Chih Leong / Writer: Jeffrey Reddick / Cast: Judd Nelson, Dahlia Salem, Brian Krause, Andrew Moxham, Natasha Wilson, J.R. Bourne, Claudette Mink, Emmanuelle Vaugier, Daniella Evangelista.

Body Count: 3


Judd Nelson, one time poster boy of The Brat Pack in the 1980s, is Stanley Caldwell, a rather dry-witted screenwriter who is penning a script for a teen slasher film and enjoys tormenting the expectations of his pushy agent, Regan, and the prissy director, Logan.

In order to research his grim tale, Stanley has taken to abducting young women from Los Angeles, imprisoning them in his lakeside cabin for days while he makes notes on their failing psychoses and eventually weighting them and drowning them in the lake.

The local cops pin up new missing persons’ posters and thank their lucky stars it’s all happening in the city and not in their dozy town, which extraneously houses a small film community, including a trio of special effects techs. During a dive to test some new camera work, down comes a new weight with most recent victim Mallory (Burress) tied to it.

They, along with a pre-NCIS Michael Weatherly as the requisite handsome deputy, rescue the girl and create a mold of her face with cameras in the eyes to put in place of her body for the killer’s return to ‘tend his garden’ of drowned princesses.

The plan fails, Stanley somehow manages to abduct Mallory a second time while other people work out some obvious clues and come to the rescue, tying Stanley in place of his chosen victim.

While it only functions as a slasher film for some parts and doesn’t show even a splash of blood, Cabin by the Lake isn’t a totally lost cause. Nelson, who had already played an unhinged psycho killer in Relentless back in the 80s, makes for an interesting maniac, while Burress takes the final girl role in her stride.

In Return to…, Stanley’s back (and carrying a bit more weight), last seen at the end of the first film lunching with a new agent and sporting a bad wig, and his crimes are now being made into the film he was writing both literally and figuratively. Production is hampered by an egotistical director, bimbette actresses willing to sleep their way to the best roles, and a mob of protesters led by the brother of one of Stanley’s victims.

He mingles in the background for a while and eventually offs enough bystanders to become the new director. He takes pity on the downtrodden screenwriter (Salem) and soon wins her favour until her research uncovers more than he wanted her to know.

It’s deja vu as far as most of the story goes, with standard in-jokes around making a slasher film based on ‘true events’ that bring back flashes of Cut, Scream 3 and Urban Legends: Final Cut, to name but a few of the many other films that have toyed with the same premise.

Possibly even tamer than the first one, this could almost be a family movie, cheapened by some naff looking slo-mo and the inconsequential he’s-still-out-there ending, but, again Nelson’s manipulative charm and array of bizarre disguises rescue this one from drowning as well. Curiously only this one ever made it to DVD in the UK.

You could do worse than this pair of after-school-esque films, probably perfect for a 12-year-old’s sleepover but as Stanley’s agent advises, it could do with a few decapitated heads and chopped off limbs.

Blurbs-of-interest: Judd Nelson was later in The Caretaker; Hedy Burress was in Valentine; Emmanuelle Vaugier and Daniella Evangelista were both in Ripper: Letter from Hell, and Vaugier was also in The Fear: Resurrection; Claudette Mink was in Children of the Corn: Revelation; producer Neil H. Moritz also produced the I Know What You Did Last Summer films and the first to Urban Legends.

Valley of the Cheapjack Franchises: SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE

I defy anyone not to find some enjoyment in The Slumber Party Massacre. It’s about the most fun you can have with the overcooked conventions of the slasher film: nubile girls gathered away from adult supervision and a psycho killer boring holes into them with a big phallic powerdrill.

But as a franchise, how does it pan out? One word: Cheap.

THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE

3.5 Stars  1982/18/77m

A.k.a. Sleepless Nights; Slumber Party Murders (original UK video)

“Close your eyes for a second…and sleep forever.”

Director: Amy Holden Jones / Writer: Rita Mae Brown / Cast: Michele Michaels, Robin Stille, Michael Villella, Debra DeLiso, Andree Honore, Gina Mari, Jennifer Meyers, Joseph Alan Johnson, David Millbern, Jim Boyce, Pamela Roylance, Brinke Stevens, Ryan Kennedy.

Body Count: 12

Dire-logue: “What do you have against Valerie anyway?” / “Nothing…she drinks too much milk.”


Once upon a time, feminists thought slasher movies were a bit offensive to women. There was a lot of woman-as-victim artwork and a fair wad of female naked flesh on show (although it’s worth noting that only 21% of the 553 slasher flicks I’ve seen have more female then male victims).

It wouldn’t be long, therefore, before somebody attempted to reverse the trend and, not so much make a slasher flick for girls, but one that bends the unwritten rules concerning femininity and lunatic killers. The Slumber Party Massacre was originally scripted under the name Sleepless Nights by bisexual feminist author Rita Mae Brown as a parody that was altered by Roger Corman’s production company, who attempted to film it straight, which resulted in an oddly endearing little film with a lot of intentional (and unintentional) humour.

Eighteen-year-old Trish is left alone for the weekend by her folks and decides to invite the girls from her basketball team over. Unknown to her – or she did know and just didn’t give a shit – a homicidal loon has escaped from the local institute blah-de-blah-blah and turns up at her school where he offs a couple of poor maidens who’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, one of whom is Brinke Stevens in her first ‘major’ role.

Kim, Jackie and Diane come over, as do some horny boys, but new-girl Valerie (who conveniently lives across the street) turned Trish down when she overheard Diane dissing her in the locker room. Girl shoulda hit that beyatch up high. Or something.

The driller killer, a fellow of all of five-seven in a denim ensemble, soon appears with his portable power drill and begins doing in the nosy neighbour, and members of the group who venture outside for the usual contrived reasons. Eventually, the killer makes his presence known and attempts to raise help are foiled until Valerie and her precocious little sister Courtney come over to check things out and the remaining girls pool their resources and counter attack the psycho.

The Slumber Party Massacre is nothing special in terms of its look or pastiche-style approach to the genre: it’s a very downmarket production, albeit one that’s pieced together competently enough and acted no worse than anything else from the same era.

The light-hearted playfulness and shallow subtext of the film is what sells it: the pizza delivery scene is gold and when Valerie finally takes on the gnome-like killer, she does so by first hacking off the end of his big, hard…drill. I mean, look at the poster art, a man straddling four cute girls with the drill bit pointed erect in their direction!? It doesn’t get much more phallocentric.

SPM was about the only film before Scream to allow more than one teenage girl to make it out intact. Previously – and in most films that came afterwards – several guys could be left standing but only ever one girl, possibly part of the issue to which feminists took umbrage, as it was common for such a girl to be one who embodied ‘traditional female’ attributes – despite the fact she always kicked ass at the end!

It’s lucky Valerie comes to the rescue, she can operate all manner of powertools of her own (see this Ridiculous scene o’ the month) and swing her machete with vigour. But the other surviving girls lend a hand too.

There’s some decent camera work, interesting kills and plenty of dark humour (the fridge bit is the epitome of awesome) and it never outstays its welcome at a lean 77 minutes. The killer is almost entirely unfrightening but therein lies the appeal of The Slumber Party Massacre, it’s idiotic amusement with more heart than most of its contemporaries.

*

SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE II

1987/76m  1.5 Stars

A.k.a. Don’t Let Go

Director/Writer: Deborah Brock / Cast: Crystal Bernard, Kimberly McArthur, Juliette Cummins, Heidi Kozak, Atanas Ilitch, Patrick Lowe, Joel Hoffman, Scott Westmoreland, Cynthia Eilbacher, Jennifer Rhodes.

Body Count: 8

Dire-logue: “Maybe, just maybe… there is a psycho running around here.”


The Bangles. Remember the Bangles? Pop-rock quartet of the mid-80s who sang about shit Mondays, fire that won’t die and walking around like you’re from the middle east? They were cool – imagine if they did a slasher movie where they were terrorised by Elvis. A shit slasher film where they were terrorised by Elvis.

Slumber Party Massacre II allegedly picks up five years after the first film. Valerie’s bratty little sis Courtney is now 17 and a member of an all-girl pop-rock quartet of the mid-80s not called the Bangles. In fact, I don’t think they ever let on what the band is called. Let’s refer to them as the Snap-Ons after those cool braceletty things of said era.

Courtney still has nightmares about that night, but in her dreams the driller killer is no longer pint-sized loon Russ Thorn but the ghost of a 50s rocker whose drillbit extends from the neck of his guitar who is about as scary as Jimmy Ray with a Black and Decker. You remember Jimmy Ray, don’t you?

Despite omens to the contrary, Courtney thinks it’s a good idea to go off with the Snap-Ons for a weekend at Sheila’s parents’ new condo. Her love interest Matt will be there and a couple of other dickhead guys who’re more interested in getting in the girls’ panties than their elevator-brand of melodic rock-pop. Actually, the second song they do isn’t so bad, though it comes after a long montage of girly dancing and topless pillowfights.

SPM II becomes just another Elm Street rip-off before long. Courtney’s dreams seem to spill over into reality – even one where’s she’s in a bubble bath and spooky shit begins to happen; her friend Sally’s zit also morphs into a super-gross pimple-from-hell and bursts all over her. Yuck.

The driller killer manages to cross over from her dreams and start turning holes in her friends, who, up until now, have pretty much laughed off her rantings as “taking too many diet pills, dude!” Sucks to them, then, as they each feel the sharp end of the guitar-o-drill.

Now shit gets really weird: it becomes a musical. A fucking musical. Possibly the first of its kind (and I’ve sat through Sssshhh… and Kucch to Hai). So, the teens begin to flee, the killer able to appear wherever the nearest smoke-machine has been wheeled in, laugh, drill ‘em, say something unfunny and blow kisses at Courtney, then stops to sing a rock n’ roll song or two. How long would the 76 minute film be without this crap and a never ending chase through a half-built condo? Things aren’t helped by a twist that makes no sense whatsoever.

Ultimately, it’s always nice to see a couple of familiar slasher movie faces; Juliette Cummins was Robin in Friday the 13th Part V and Heidi Kozak was Sandra in Part VII, but the cheapness of the project, annoying stabs at being funny and the randomness of it all (common in late-80s slashers) shoot drill it in the foot.

If you were to televise a talent contest of slasher movie killers, I think all the driller killers would fare badly. We’ve had the garden gnome un-forebodingness of Russ Thorn and his B*Witched-esque denim wardrobe, and now Teen Angel gone bad with a shitty guitar and shittier songs. Surely the next film will feature a truly unnerving bad guy…?

*

SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE III

3 Stars  1990/87m

“It’s driller time…and this bit’s for you!”

Director: Sally Mattison / Writer: Catherine Cyran / Cast: Keely Christian, Brittain Frye, Maria Claire, Brandi Burkett, Maria Ford, David Lawrence, Hope Marie Carlton, David Krieger, David Greenlee, Lulu Wilson, Garon Grigsby, M.K. Harris, Devon Jenkin, Marta Kober, Yan Birch.

Body Count: 12

Dire-logue: “You don’t just kill someone who’s lying there!”


It doesn’t.

In terms of production quality, this is probably the best of the original ‘trilogy’. If these films were being shot now, SPM III would likely be classed as a ‘reboot’. With nowt to do with the first two films, things kick off again with a new group of gal-pals in California.

Main chick Jackie is the host of the party this time as she’s going to be moving away with her parents, much to the disappointment of her friends. With the folks away scouting out new homes, Jackie invites Diane, Maria, Janine, Susie, Juliette and Sarah over for a girlie night in. Sarah never shows up because a drill-toting ‘mystery’ killer was waiting for her in the backseat of her car.

The biggest disappointment in the film is the killer’s identity, not because of who it is but the fact that both the back of the box and the trailer make no attempt to disguise it, yet the film goes almost an hour before revealing who it is. In the meantime, there are suspects in Jackie’s uber-strange neighbour, who she finds in her house when she comes home from the beach. Then there’s the weird guy who was spying on them at said beach. He’s lurking too.

Several boyfriends crash the party and the killing soon begins. Isn’t it strange how all three of the films (and to a lesser extent the ‘fourth’ one too) trade on the USP of scantily clad girls being drilled, yet in all of them there are almost as many boys around, none of whom ever survive the carnage. Why aren’t they on the DVD covers in their skivvies, eh? No, really…why?

SPM III unfolds in generic style but does so interestingly enough without compromising itself. It’s a pure slasher flick, with every box ticked:

  • There’s plenty of victims
  • There’s plenty of suspects
  • There’s a trademark weapon
  • There’s a lot of tits

What else could you want, other than a modicum of intelligence. The fact that this is the only film to take itself completely seriously undermines a lot of what happens. The girls are shockingly reluctant to fight back (it’s 1990 girls, not 1920), allowing more of them than is necessary to get drilled to death. Fortunately, it takes more cues from the original when they finally band together with admirable ferocity and gang up on the actually rather weedy looking loon, who has some shitty contrived motive about being impotent and/or molested – quite possibly by the rockabilly dream driller from SPM II.

Despite being ‘of the 90s’ – when the genre truly collapsed until Scream - things look very dated and 80s. The girls dance around their living room in a variety of memorable fashion ensembles. The cast – the best of all the films in terms of ‘known’ faces – features a couple of Playboy girls while several of the others look too similar with their bobbed hair. In fact, the professional glamour models look a million miles away from the rather ordinary girls who do most of the acting. Susie has an appealing Winona Ryder quality about her. Maria attempts to use pop-psychology and sex to calm the killer down…

OK so it’s a rubbish film on most levels but hardcore slasher nuts will doubtlessly derive some joy from its predictable elements, not to mention death by vibrator and another by for sale sign. Good piece o’ banter: “Gimme that poker.” / “Jackie, you’re not going down there.” / “Besides, they’re tongs.”

Look out for Marta Kober – Sandra from Friday the 13th Part 2 - as the pizza delivery girl.

*

THE CHEERLEADER MASSACRE

2003/18/92m  2.5 Stars

A.k.a. Slumber Party Massacre IV

Director: Jim Wynorski / Writer: Lenny Juliano / Cast: Tamie Sheffield, Charity Rahmer, Erin Byron, Lunk Johnson, E. Eddie Edwards, GiGi Enreta, Elizabeth Short, Tylo Tyler, Brad Beck, Summer Williams, Brinke Stevens.

Body Count: 13

Dire-logue: “I knew today was gonna suck when we got those stale donuts.”


Gotta love the opening cliche: no less than 29 seconds in, a girl in a tent hears a strange noise and sends her boyfriend outside to investigate.

So, is this the fourth film in the series or not? Hmm, who knows. It’s the only one not directed by a woman so maybe not. Wynorski directed Sorority House Massacre 2, which notoriously included flashbacks to the original SPM and had fuck all to do with the first SHM.

Here, not only does he use flashbacks from that film again but also goads in genre queen Brinke Stevens as Linda, who supposedly died near the start of the very first film but apparently, y’know, didn’t.Again, he weirdly alters the names of the original characters. She was called Diane, not Ginger! The killer is no longer called Russ Thorn but now Jeremiah McPherson (WHAT?) and the victims were all in their forties. Huh, you say? Yeah – huh?

Ignoring this shit, the film pulls focus on a busload of cheerleaders, their coach, drivers, and two random guys who are there for no clear reason. Stranded in a ‘snowstorm’ (which we never see), they take shelter at a mountain cabin while the local cops look for McPherson and a shady killer off the pom-pom girls and their entourage one by one…

Like his other films, Wynorski crams Cheerleader Massacre full of unnecessary and downright aggravating nudity and graphic sex. At one point the bus driver begins telling a ghost story, which is dramatised for us, that ends up with three chicks naked in a hot tub and licking chocolate sauce off each other!

Much sex, shower scenes and off-screen kills later, the murderer reveals who they are and the final girlies fight back as per the other SPM‘s. Strangely, the screenwriter wisely chooses his heroines, avoiding the usual nice-girl-with-dead-mom route and opting instead for the bitchy girl and the short-fused coach.

So, not as bad as the write-ups but not up to the standards of the films it alludes to following. Well, it’s better than SPM II I guess.

Some strange things: a snowstorm is due, so why is one hiker wearing nothing but a crop-top and short-shorts? Why is the sky so blue and the trees so green? And if the power was cut, why are the lights so obviously on for Ms Hendricks’ shower scene? Oh right, stupid question!

Blurbs-of-interest: SPM: Debra DeLiso was the heroine in Iced, which also featured Joseph Alan Johnson (who wrote it) and he was also in Berserker; SPM II: Juliette Cummins was also in Psycho III and Deadly Dreams; Joel Hoffman was in Aerobicide; SPM III Brittain Frye was in Hide and Go Shriek; Devon Jenkin was in Twisted Nightmare. A 2008 no-budget garbage flick called Spring Break Massacre claims to be an homage.




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