Sunday, May 29, 2011

Sleepaway Camp: Where have you been all my life?

It's damned nigh impossible for me to fathom that I could have been a full-fledged horror fanatic in the 1980s, yet somehow managed to miss Sleepaway Camp. But I suppose it's for the best. Sleepaway Camp is a film best experienced in maturity. Had I watched it in my youth, my reaction would have been:

(Dismissively) "That was fucking stupid."

Whereas, when I watched it recently, my reaction was:

(With boundless enthusiasm) "That was fucking stupid!"

Sleepaway Camp is a film best enjoyed with a roomful of noisy, drunken friends, but is so over-the-top ridiculous that you can watch it solo and have a blast, provided you act as your own noisy, drunken friend.
In fact, you won't be able to help it. Even without access to alcohol, Sleepaway Camp is so intoxicatingly dumb that you'll feel like you've downed a sixer of PBR (the downside is that even if you're drinking good beer, you'll still feel like you've downed a sixer of PBR).

Sleepaway Camp is a bad horror film that is bad in all the right ways, so it becomes great. All the performances are amateurish and grotesquely over-acted, but you can tell everyone is completely giving it their all, which renders it charming.

Young actress totally going for it.
 The film begins with our heroes, cousins Angela and Ricky, enjoying a day on the lake with their loving father/uncle. But they haven't accounted for the deadly presence of teenagers driving speedboats. The minute the strapping young captain turns the wheel over to a girl, the vessel transforms into a deadly projectile headed straight for the happy family. The father/uncle is killed while the young water-skier pictured above gives the performance of her life.

Fast forward a few years and Angela and Ricky are teenagers headed to summer camp. Ricky's mother has become completely unhinged by her husband's death, as evidenced by her strange habit of commenting on her own statements and, more tellingly, her outfit.

Once at camp, we learn that Angela doesn't speak, due to acute quietness, which makes her an instant target for the mean girls clique, consisting of Ricky's busty last-summer-girlfriend and Meg (M-E-G) the bitchy camp counsellor. When Angela won't eat, a kindly counsellor takes her back to the kitchen to see if there is some food she likes better, and introduces her to the pedophile head chef, who promptly takes her into the pantry to molest her. Luckily, Ricky intervenes just in time. Mysteriously, some time later as pedochef is throwing corn into the world's biggest stockpot, someone pulls the chair out from under him, sending the pedophile and the stockpot tumbling to the floor and resulting in some nasty burns. Since, Ricky and Angela were the only two characters to have witnessed pedochef's transgressions, 20 minutes into the movie, the killer's identity is narrowed down to two suspects.

"I got something you'll like real good."

You play with chicken, you get fried.
 The surprising thing about Sleepaway Camp is that it crept up on me, and dumb as it is, before I knew it, I was emotionally invested in the characters. I pitied poor, silent Angela for the abuses piled on her, and found myself ridiculously happy when Ricky's friend, Paul gets her to finally speak.

Awww, ain't they cute?

The rest of the film follows a predictable pattern. Campers taunt and abuse Angela, Ricky freaks out and threatens to rip their heads off, then the killer catches them alone and takes them out. There are no scares whatsoever, and the kills are pretty tame, but somewhat imaginative. What's hilarious is the motivation behind each kill. While revenge for attempted rape makes a certain amount of sense, revenge for a water-ballooning is just plain awesome.

The aftermath of a vicious water-ballooning.
Cuidado - Spoilers anon.

Just when you think Sleepaway Camp is going to be utterly predictable, it flips the script and blows your mind. Don't get me wrong, it's fairly obvious that Angela is the killer, but it turns out to be for an entirely different reason than you'd been led to believe. In an atrociously asinine and offensive turn of events, it is revealed that is wasn't her uncle's death that warped young Angela's mind, but rather than her aunt was transgendered man who forced her young nephew to live as a girl. The final shot of the film, in which Angela's true sex (i.e. her wee-wee) is revealed is truly astonishing. Not only does she go from a seemingly normal, if painfully shy, teen girl to a raging psychotic cradling Paul's severed head, she also apparently turns into Sasquatch, if her unearthly growling sounds are any indication. The icing on the cake is the final line of the film when one of the counsellors says in disbelief, "How can it be? She's a boy!" Yeah, never mind Paul's severed head dropping into the sand and the fact that she's channelling Bigfoot while wielding a knife. For God's sake, she's got a penis!

Had the final scene not caused me to laugh convulsively for a solid half-hour, I might have been highly offended at the completely ignorant and hateful depiction of transgendered people. Were I a member of the LGBT community, the homophobic twist ending would have likely ruined the entire film for me. As it was, the offensiveness only added to Sleepaway Camp's schlocky charm. I definitely recommend this film to everyone with a highly-refined taste for terrible movies. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Random Horror Shoutout: Jurian Hughes

Since I wanted to check back in at the Mancave, but haven't had time to write a full post, I thought I'd just throw out whatever has been on my mind. So here's a new feature for y'all: Random Horror Shoutouts.

I'm becoming a bit obsessed with Brad Anderson's Session 9.  As someone who has semi-frequent auditory hallucinations, the scenes where Simon speaks to Gordon terrify the crap out me. All I have to do to make myself shiver is think, "Hello, Gordon. You can hear me." It's that goddamn voice.

And so, this week's random horror shoutout goes to out to Jurian Hughes, the voice actress who played Mary/Princess/Billy/Simon. While the set design is stunningly creepy and the hospital becomes a character unto itself, I think the success of the film hinges entirely on Hughes's performance. There hasn't been a voice this freaky since Mercedes McCambridge made the world wet its collective pants in The Exorcist. While I'm at it, I should give credit to the sound designers who put the lo-fi warble into Hughes's voice-overs, making them sound like fifty-year old reel-to-reel tape warped by the heat of Hell's own Bar-B-Q.

I should really give this film a proper post, since it is definitely own of my favorites of the last decade. But for now, I'll just give kudos once more to Jurian Hughes, the black little heart and soul of Session 9.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Laid to Rest: A New Slasher Classic?

When you think about the big horror franchises of the 80's (which, I think we can all agree was the golden age of slashers), what did they all have in common? An iconic killer, of course. The big four: Freddy, Jason, Michael, and Leatherface all had either a trademark mask, weapon, or both. Who today can look at a goalie mask without immediately thinking of the illustrious Mr. Voorhees?  When you think of a chainsaw, does your brain say, "power tool" or "murder weapon?" Mine too. I may be jumping the gun on this one, but it seems to me that Laid to Rest has what it takes to stand up alongside the greats, and Cthulu-willing, Chromeskull will take his rightful place in the horror hall of fame.

When it comes to masks, the simpler, the more iconic. This is why Michaels Myers's featureless white mask is so effective. And Jason's is simpler still.  Chromeskull's mask is flashier and more elaborate, but the design is straightforward: a skull-the universal symbol of death, polished to a high shine so his victims can see their own reflections as they die.

Chromeskull's weapons are two huge, vicious-looking knives with fingerguards and wicked serrated teeth. They too are polished and shiny, glinting in the dark against the backdrop of Mr. Skull's classy black suit. Chromeskull gets more than a few creative kills out of those versatile knives, and the violence is way more intense and graphic than practically any 80's slasher. The special effects are top-notch and the gore is copious. Nearly every kill had me shouting, "That was so cool," at the screen.

Glorious kills aside, where Laid to Rest really shines is in its simultaneous adherence to and departure from slasher film conventions. Robert Hall takes a page out of John Carpenter's book and reveals no motive for the murders, keeping his killer silent and mysterious. There's a sort of "slasher purity" to the film that makes it work so well. There's no real plot to speak of, and it starts off scary and rarely lets up.

Where it departs from convention is in the characters. Rather than an obnoxious group of partying teenagers, Laid to Rest begins with a single woman trapped in a coffin who has amnesia and possibly brain damage. After her initial escape from Chromeskull, she hitches a ride with a big, tough-looking, bald dude who turns out to be the nicest, most endearing character in the film. He takes on the role of her protector and brings her home to his wife, played by the always fantastic Lena Heady, who comes off as gruff and abrasive, but quickly shows her kinder side. The couple are hicks, but Hall doesn't turn them into stereotypes who exist only to be mocked. Because they care about this mysterious young woman, you care about them, which always makes the violence so much more crushing.

While not a perfect film, I was still blown away by it and beyond happy to learn a Robert Hall-helmed sequel is in the works. This is one franchise I'd like to see get huge.

But I do wonder how much of my excitement was due to having "discovered" the film on my own. I had never heard of it-just picked it up on a whim at the pawn shop because Lena Heady was listed in the credits. I'd like to know what you think-am I overblowing this thing, or is it really as good as I thought. Seriously y'all, blow up the comments section on this one.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Keepin' It Spooky at The World

Marvin the Macabre outside of the Haunted Mansion

It can be a chore to keep the horror in your heart at the happiest place on Earth, but I think I managed it. I introduced both my sons to the joys of the Haunted Mansion (they're now fanatical about it), dropped from the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror twice in a row (this time without an intense hangover), and faced giant spiders and animatronic dementors in a jaunt over to Universal (sadly, I was in the wrong part of the park for Monsters memorabilia).

I'll soon be returning to my regularly scheduled descents into depravity, but I thought I'd share with you all the warm glow of a vacation well-spent.

I picked up this souvenir book outside the mansion.
It details the history of the ride and includes
some great early production sketches.

The Original Haunted Mansion Poster

Artwork from Paris Disneyland's Phantom Manor

My Bellatrix Lestrange pin from The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
I can't help it. My love for Helena Bonham Carter,
particularly in this batshit crazy role, knows no bounds.

Sadly, Bellatrix's wand was not available in the park.
Voldemort's does look pretty bad-ass though.
What type of bone do you suppose it's made from?

For my shotglass collection.
I know whose head I'll be swilling liquor from this Halloween.

Okay, I didn't actually get this figure. The picture is from a book
I picked up in Epcot's Mexico pavilion. It has instructions
for making calaveras and other Dia de los Muertos crafts.

Here's the only piece of Mickey memorabilia I bought. It's another pin, and Mickey looks like he's about to rip out your trachea.What's cooler than that?