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Fill up with fear

body bags 1993THE GAS STATION

4 Stars  1993/18/23m

A.k.a. Body Bags (segment 1)

Director: John Carpenter / Writers: Billy Brown & Dan Angel / Cast: Alex Datcher, Robert Carradine, David Naughton, George ‘Buck’ Flower, Wes Craven, Sam Raimi.

Body Count: 3


Probably about as close as we’ll ever get to seeing John Carpenter direct another slasher film, The Gas Station was the first of three segments to his 1993 anthology Body Bags (the other two concerned Stacy Keach having a bad hair life, and something about Mark Hamill’s eye).

Alex Datcher is perfect as Anne, a college girl starting her first nightshift as the cashier at a Haddonfield (!) gas station, not far from the stomping ground of an at-large serial killer.

Wes Craven is her first customer, a creepy old dude looking for chips, followed soon by a flirtatious handsome guy, then a homeless fellow after the restroom key, a playful couple, and finally silence… but then she spots the car on the mount in the garage going up and down by itself.

At 23 minutes, this is a slasher flick on speed, meta’d right down to a quarter of the usual length, and Anne is soon running and screaming: Windows are bashed in, bodies fall out of lockers… Pretty much everything that happened to Jamie Lee Curtis in the last act of Halloween happens here.

the gas station 1993 john carpenter

The casting of a black actress as the final girl is refreshing against Carpenter’s retread, featuring some of the same shot composition, and although we don’t get much time with her, we’re quick to support Anne through her ordeal.

It couldn’t be a feature length outing, but it’s nice that Carpenter stopped by to fill up on some stalking goodness.

Blurbs-of-interest: George Buck Flower was also in Berserker and Cheerleader Camp; Sam Raimi (playing a corpse) also acted in Intruder.

 

The Hellish Initiation Hazing Pledge Night Night

dead scared the hazing 2004

DEAD SCARED

3 Stars  2004/15/84m

“Best friends are hard to keep… alive.”

A.k.a. The Hazing

Director/Writer: Rolfe Kanefsky / Cast: Tiffany Shepis, Nectar Rose, Parry Shen, Brad Dourif, Jeremy Maxwell, Philip Andrew, David Tom, Charmaine DeGrate.

Body Count: 14

Laughter Lines: “You don’t understand, man! The book is evil!” / “And it will be punished – we’ll all take turns spanking it later, OK?”


On the surface, Dead Scared looks like just another cheap video flick that appeared in the post-Scream binge. So it comes as a pleasant surprise that the film manages to transcend its budgetary constrictions with a witty writing and sharp, sassy dialogue.

The fact that it doesn’t stick to the slasher rules like flypaper is also a plus, as it serves up a cut n’ shut plot reminiscent of both The Evil Dead and Hell Night: Five college pledges embark on a scavenger hunt set for them by senior members of their respective sorority/fraternity houses, which is to end with a night spent at an abandoned house where a murder occurred a zillion years earlier.

Too bad that two of them end up accidentally killing a creepy professor (Dourif) after they discover he’s into some dark rituals. Once gathered at the house, it transpired that he’s not so dead after all and his spirit possesses one of the pledges and sends them on a quest of gory carnage, with people being turned into mannequins or biting their own tongues off.

dead scared the hazing 2004

As the numbers dwindle, the final trio of teens are left to establish re-equilibrium. In a similar way to the previous year’s Detour (which also featured Shepis in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her cameo), it’s the characters who initially appeared least likely to survive who emerge victorious, with Rose as a man-eater who pretends to be a bimbo to get the guy she wants where she wants him.

Although short on fresh ideas for this type of venture, creator Kanefsky inks some great moments and exchanges and the plucky cast turn in surprisingly good performances, with Dourif’s comic charm elevating his comparatively minimal screentime to be the most memorable.

Blurbs-of-interest: Dourif voiced Chucky in all six Child’s Play outings, and was also in Trauma, Urban LegendChain Letter, and both of Rob Zombie’s Halloween re-do’s; Parry Shen was in all three Hatchet movies; Tiffany Shepis was also in Basement JackBloody Murder 2Home Sick, and Scarecrow; David Tom was in Stepfather III.

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…

step1-2

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.

stepfather 1987 jill schoelen

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.

stepfather 1987 terry o'quinn

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 make room for daddy

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.

stepfather 2 terry o'quinn

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

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.

stepfather 3

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.

stepfather 3

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.

stepfather 2009

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.

Welcome to Australia

wolf creek tv series 2016

WOLF CREEK (TV SERIES)

4 Stars  2016/288m

Directors: Tony Tilse (5 episodes), Greg McLean (1 episode) / Writers: Felicity Packard & Peter Gawker / Cast: John Jarratt, Lucy Fry, Dustin Clare, Jessica Tovey, Fletcher Humphrys, Deborah Mailman, Jake Ryan, Richard Cawthorne, Eddie Baroo, Matt Levett.

Body Count: 24


TV was the new movies in the 2000s, with bigger budgets, drawn out arcs sucking in squillions of viewers that your favourite movie could never. Legal dramas, police procedurals, mafia families, drug dealers, vampire hunters, and trundling along at the rear, like the runt of the horror litter it’s often seen as, slasher tales.

First came Harper’s Island, then Scream – The TV Seriesand the risible Scream Queens, the subtley titled Slasherand now from down under, Wolf Creek.

On the back of the pair of brutal homegrown Aussie flicks, which chronicled the never ending killing spree of the outback’s answer to Freddy Krueger, Mick Taylor, as he raped, pillaged, and knifed nubile tourists who ventured beyond the city limits. Based on the real crimes of backpacker murderer Ivan Milat, Wolf Creek‘s gritty and repellent presentation of vulnerable outsiders thrown into a truly nightmarish situation resulted in a film even found too intense to return to.

wolf creek tv series mick taylor john jarratt 2016

At the end of Wolf Creek 2 in 2013, Mick once again evaded capture and death and lived to hunt another day. The TV series starts with Taylor doing what he does so well: Killing. Selecting the American Thorogood family, who unwisely park their huge RV at a billabong where pre-teen son Ross is almost chomped by a saltwater crocodile, Mick shoots the reptile and is invited to supper. While Mom and Dad chatter, 19-year-old daughter Eve finds their guest a bit much and goes to lie down with some music.

Mick makes quick work of the parents and little brother, and goes after Eve, who, as a committed athlete, bolts for her life, but is shot down in the distance. Unable to find her body, raspy-voiced Mick chalks it up to croc bait and burns down the RV and disposes of all evidence of murder. Eve is rescued by some birdwatchers the next day.

wolf creek tv series 2016 lucy fry

Detective Sullivan Hill is assigned to the case and carries an ever-growing folder of possible crimes committed by the anonymous psycho in the outback. His attempts to put Eve on a plane back to the US are foiled when she runs away, steals the folder, buys a van and takes off in the direction of the crime.

Over the next few episodes, Eve follows Mick’s trail of murder around the desolate outback of the Northern Territory and Western Australia, while Hill follows her. She befriends a stray dog (named ‘Dog’) and finds herself in a series of bizarre and deadly situations, from being arrested for possession of weed (which was left in the van she bought by its previous owner), escaping prison, stealing cash and a gun from a biker gang, facing off a would-be rapist, solving a murder, and researching Mick’s previous murders. Each episode has a small arc within the greater story, as Eve goes from teary victim to woman warrior.

wolf creek tv series 2016

Of course, this journey is anything but smooth: Eve steps in bear-traps, is attacked by horny blokes at least twice, bitten by a venomous snake, and almost murdered by a crazy subterranean dweller. She also finds time to go all Daniel LaRusso with an outback saviour, who teacher her the aboriginal way of throwing a spear – something that’ll come in handy later, of course.

Original creator Greg McLean declared that Wolf Creek in this incarnation is less about Mick than it is Eve, and, wisely, the killer is limited in his appearances, cropping up here and there, stalking and killing a few poor folks as his and Eve’s paths grow ever closer to crossing: After a couple of episodes, he is aware someone has survived and is out to find him, he murders her would-be rapist, they ask about one another at the same roadhouse, with Hill just a heartbeat behind.

wolf creek tv series 2016

Elsewhere, the hoodwinked bikers are chasing her, allowing for an amazingly funny interchange when one of them catches up with her, proclaiming he needs a woman to give him kids instead of killing her. The Wolf Creek movies featured generous slabs of dark humour from Mick, but additional skits from background players here do a lot to endear the viewer to the production.

As things wrap up in the final two episodes (of a perfectly pitched six), Eve tracks Taylor to a drinking hole, which also – a little too conveniently – is frequented by a mad local known as Jesus, who is revealed to be Ben, only survivor of the first movie. Weird that they never ran into one another? She is finally able to put a lid on the biker situation, and follows clues left by Mick to lead her to the Wolf Creek Crater and then his lair.

wolf creek tv series 2016 john jarratt lucy fry

The only arguable flaw at this juncture is the appearance of Mick’s backstory in black and white flashbacks to his childhood, which serve as the starting point to his murderous career. It denigrates his repulsive character to some degree, almost drawing sympathy from the audience, and aligning him even closer to Freddy Krueger than before, as he appears behind Eve with a few witty remarks at his disposal, further cementing the similarity.

So it comes down to survivor versus legendary maniac in a final showdown that seems over a little too soon, and lacks an amount of finality that points towards a second series in the future – but how can Mick survive what Eve finally does to him?

wolf creek tv series 2016 dustin clare

Much IMDb crying occurred over the series being too slow, Eve not being ‘right’ to take on Mick, and him not being in it enough. However, keeping the tempo of the films over almost five hours is never likely to work and would not be sustainable, and largely physically impossible for the characters. It was 100% the right decision to keep Taylor in the shadows as much as possible. Eve is also the perfect opponent – an outsider in every possible way, a recovering opiate addict, and an unlikely survivor.

Easily the best slasher series on virtually every level, from the lush production values, use of the agoraphobic Australian landscape, where, despite so much space, there’s still nowhere you can run. Jarratt, Fry, and the impossibly handsome Clare all put in excellent performances, and every bit-parter makes an impression, Dog included. Given this was almost the 700th slasher ‘thing’ I’ve seen, for me to find it so fresh and binge-watch over two days underscores just how much I loved Wolf Creek. So great.

wolf creek tv series 2016 lucy fry

P.S., that full frontal nudity? It’s a guy.

Blurbs-of-interest: Jarratt also featured in Next of Kin and Needle.

Slither n’ Slash

venom 2005 dvd

VENOM

3.5 Stars  2005/15/87m

“He never hurt a soul until the day he died.”

Director: Jim Gillespie / Writers: Flint Dille, John Zuur Platten & Brandon Boyce / Cast: Agnes Bruckner, Jonathan Jackson, Rick Cramer, Laura Ramsey, Meagan Good, D.J. Cotrona, Pawel Szajda, Bijou Phillips, Davetta Sherwood, Method Man.

Body Count: 12

Laughter Lines: “You stole it?” / “Well, I wasn’t gonna buy it, it’s too ugly! I felt bad taking a nice one – I have a conscience.”


Kevin Williamson produced this ill-failed feature, for which he was reunited with I Know What You Did Last Summer director Gillespie. It ended up being released within days of Hurricane Katrina – not good for a Louisiana-shot, voodoo-centric teen horror film. Predictably it tanked, raking less than $1million.

In spite of this misfortune, Venom is a handsome critter, which benefits from above average production design, and a brutality absent in other recent slasher films. And there weren’t many around theatrically in 2005. Initially, the film was conceived as a backstory for a pending video game, Backwater, which featured an antagonist known as Mr Jangles. Whether that ever surfaced I do not know.

venom 2005 meagan good agnes bruckner

A mambo priestess in the deep south retrieves a suitcase full of snakes possessed by the evil of people whose bad mojo they’ve sucked out in a ‘milking ceremony’. Whilst transporting it to safety, she, grimy local mechanic/outcast Ray Sawyer, and sexy teens Eden and Eric, are involved in an accident on a bridge, which culminates with the hulking Ray trapped inside the sinking car with the loose snakes.

Ray’s body is retrieved and the mambo also dies from her injuries, but the former is soon up and about, killing the coroner, Method Man’s deputy (what happened to him!?), and a string of teens leading back to the mambo’s house, where her granddaughter CeCe (Good, who is, uh, good) is mourning her loss.

venom 2005

Meanwhile, the demon-formerly-known-as-Ray sandblasts a light-fingered teen to death before heading in the direction of the house where the depleting teens gather to comfort CeCe. After finding their VW Beetle turned on its head (at least it wasn’t completely trashed, gorgeous thing that it is) the assault begins with a ripped-off arm, death-by-crowbar, and even house-wrenched-in-half when CeCe’s voodoo powder-scattering blocks his entry.

Venom goes to some lengths to provide creative demises for all involved, but by doing so adheres to that is-it/isn’t-it true stereotype of killing the black characters first: The first three murdered aren’t white and the ripe opportunity to finally cast a black girl as the heroine is squandered.

venom 2005 bijou phillips

That said, Agnes Bruckner, as Eden, does just fine with the role – running and retaliating where required and I’d forgotten just how long the third act of Girl vs. demon-formerly-known-as-Ray carries on, so her dues are well and truly paid.

Despite reliance on some real contrivances – one of the teens is Ray’s illegitimate son, perfect to make a voodoo doll with – there’s much to enjoy here, from the swampland locus (although why does nobody have a southern accent?) to the comparably luxury production qualities. The characters blue together somewhat, with little to them beyond final girl Eden wanting to go be a doctor in New York, her boyfriend moaning about it, the gay boy, the drunk boy, and a host of ‘other ones’.

venom 2005

Venom isn’t likely to be regarded as a classic by any metric, but it’s definitely worth a look for its surface gloss appeal alone, which is rare in low-end slasher fare, and some MTV hyper-edits aside, ticks all the boxes a fun horror ride should.

Blurbs-of-interest: Gillespie also directed D-Tox; Laura Ramsey was in Cruel World.

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