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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

HubrisWeen 2, Day 3: Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things (1973)

Screenplay collaboration:  Alan Ormsby
Directed and written by "Benjamin Clark" (a pseudonym for Bob Clark)

Alan Ormsby:  Alan
Valerie Mamches:  Val
Jeff Gillen:  Jeff
Anya Ormsby:  Anya
Seth Sklarey:  Orville

This is one of those movies where you can see that the director has a little talent and drive, but doesn't quite know what he's doing yet. There are some good things to be found but for the first hour or so you have to extract your own enjoyment of the film and that gets to be quite hard going. Watching this, you'd never figure the director to go on and make A Christmas Story, but you might be able to bet even money on him eventually directing Baby Geniuses.

A comic-relief gravedigger of the muttering-to-himself variety is patrolling a cemetery and sees someone wearing a suit and top hat off digging in the ground among the tombstones. He proves that he's never seen a horror movie before by walking up to the man and grabbing his shoulder; the figure turns around and reveals itself to be a hideous ghoul that beats the caretaker unconscious. That's got the be the land speed record for first attack in a horror movie; maybe the 80s monster mash C.H.U.D. can match or beat it for shortest film duration prior to monster violence. I hope you like that jump scare, because it'll be an hour or so before you get to see anything similar. A second ghoul enters the scene and helps the first finish shoveling the dirt away and opening the coffin under a large cross-shaped marker for someone named Orville Dunworth. The pair pulls the body out of the coffin and the first ghoul lies down in there and closes the lid(!); some of the credits play over a black screen while some creepily effective sound work lets the viewer hear a shovel biting into a pile of dirt interspersed with that same dirt landing on the coffin lid.

A boat pulls up to the shore of an island, and my notes here read "Was this lit with a desk lamp?" It might be the DVD from VCI Entertainment, but I think it's much more likely that a novice director with a tiny budget wasn't able to light his nighttime location scenes effectively, and there almost certainly wasn't time or money to go back and fix things once anybody got a look at the footage. On the one hand, I can sympathize. Filmmaking ain't easy and the director has to assemble a final product based on what he's got, not what he wanted to get. On the other hand, a large amount of the nighttime footage is a real mess.

Anyway, a group of people are on the boat; they're a theatrical troupe and their leader is named Alan (played by a guy named Alan, as it turns out, who also worked on the monster makeup and the screenplay). It appears that all the actors in this movie, save one, are playing characters with their first names. Is it a way to make sure nobody blew a line by calling a character by the actor's name, or was this cast not up to the task of remembering what they were supposed to be called? I can't say for sure, but most of the people playing same-name characters have really short IMDB pages and are credited in parts like "window washer" or "girl in roadhouse". Make of this what you will.

The actors disembark. The bossiest and most dickheaded of the group is the aforementioned Alan; he sneers at everyone like a flea market Alan Rickman and every time one of the actors tries to call him on his bullshit he threatens to kick them out of the troupe--he appears to be the director of whatever it is they're planning to stage. And whatever they're staging on the island involves shovels; they look like they're going to be the second group to be doing some graverobbing tonight! Also, I have to point out that nearly every character in this movie commits crimes against taste by wearing clothing from 1973 but Alan may have the worst pants in the entire decade. I can't quite recommend seeing the movie just for those pants, but I won't post a picture here because if you're that curious you deserve to sit through the rest of the film just to marvel at the ill-considered clothing on display.

During the interminable walk from the dock through the woods to a disused two-story cabin, Alan throws his weight around and acts like a snide asshole to everyone. He jokes (or "jokes", I believe) about wanting the right to sleep with the girlfriend of one of the actors; he is the head of the theater company and asserts the right of what he pronounces as "primal juncture". I think he meant primogeniture, and that doesn't have anything to do with the droit du seigneur, the possibly nonexistent right of medieval lords to claim the virginity of peasant daughters living on their land. This will not be the first time someone butchers the shit out of a pronunciation in this film, so you've got something to look forward to.

While walking to the graveyard and then to the cabin, Alan fills his troupe in on the backstory of the island--it serves as a graveyard for poor people and convicts who died in prison (my notes are a tad unclear on this last point and I have no desire to go back and clarify things). Or rather, part of the graveyard is hallowed and consecrated ground from the time there was a settlement on the island, and the larger area with mass paupers' graves situated on it is just a big patch of dirt adjacent to the other cemetery. While Alan delights in telling his actors about bad things that happened on the island in the past (one caretaker in the disused hotel / cabin / house / whatever the hell it is they used for their location shoots shot his family and is in an asylum for the criminally insane; the second one hanged himself. The third one got attacked by a ghoul so things aren't looking so great for him either). During this story, a crash zoom on an open patch in some woods shows the second ghoul from the cold open observing the group silently.

The acting troupe reaches the cabin, which is boarded up from the inside, which doesn't make a huge amount of sense if the caretaker from the first reel is supposed to be living there. Paul, the burliest of the actors, breaks a few boards down and everyone makes their way inside. While the troupe is checking out the upstairs, an honestly well-staged shot reveals the second ghoul on the lawn while the actors are talking in the room and completely failing to notice it. Downstairs, Anya (the obligatory Spooky Girl(tm) of the troupe) is rambling about psychic visions and wanting to see a ghost while hugging an armload of canned food. Alan unpacks his trunk--that two other guys had to carry all the way from the boat--which contains a shotgun, a string of garlic to ward of evil spirits or possibly flavor sauces, a blue wizard robe that almost certainly came from storage at his theater and an old evil-looking book. My notes here say "Alan is a dick" for the fifth time in a page and a half.

Alan (don't forget--he's a dick) says that his old book is a grimmorey. I don't know if the character or the actor didn't know how to pronounce that term, but it's a treat even for jaded old me to hear him say it so confidently. He's the George W. Bush of Satanic theater directors. While he's showing off the grimmorey (I started thinking of it as Grimmorey Amersterdam, and now you will too) Alan lists all the things about the island that made him want to bring everyone there. It's had an evil act committed there, it's cursed, and there are cadavers readily available. It's time to commit blasphemous acts and profane rituals of Satanic magic to raise the dead! Alan bosses the two actors with him into digging up Orville Dunworth's grave (he won't be doing any of the heavy lifting at any point, really) and when they open the coffin lid and see the lumpy-faced figure inside, everyone flinches and wonders if this is a good idea. Then it grabs Jeff the tubby comic relief guy by the throat and it's panic city. One of the actresses tries to run and the second ghoul grabs her before she gets too far. Jeff pummels the ghoul in Orville's grave and...the ghoul whines that he's getting a nosebleed.

It turns out that all this setup was a way for Alan to play an incredibly impractical joke on his theater troupe. And yes, my notes here also helpfully remind me that Alan is a dick. The two ghouls are Emerson and Roy; they'll be our camp gay Odious Comic Relief for the remainder of the film. They're also a couple; Emerson points out that Roy was dumb enough to be buried alive in a used coffin for the joke. Roy seems to accept that yes, that's kind of a stupid thing to do. Chuck--the guy who got grabbed by Roy--keeps repeating "I peed in my pants" in a proto-Coen-brothers repeated dialogue scene. It turns out that the prank was just Alan's way of being a dick to everyone, and he's actually planning to do a ritual to raise the dead.

Using an envelope full of dried fetal blood (the film wisely doesn't even try to explain where Alan got this), the director has his actors drape Orville's body up on his tombstone as the focus of the ritual; a symbolic shovelful of dirt is dug out of a couple dozen graves and the powdered blood is sprinkled around. Alan gives a long, rambling incantation that sounds like the Satanic version of the "Gosh, we're all impressed down here" prayer from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life and which is just begging to get turned into a song-poem. Nothing happens, and Alan throws a snit at Satan ("You phony! You liar!"; apparently Alan's got a touch of Holden Caulfield in him), sounding like he's furious with Satan for signing with a major label after Alan enjoyed his earlier, underground work.

Alan's ex-girlfriend does a parody of his incantation, turning it into a seemingly endless Borscht Belt-level impression of a hectoring Jewish mother. Alan despises being upstaged, and takes Orville back to the cabin to hold a party as a way to keep everyone uncomfortable and doing what he wants rather than what they want. I might not have pointed this out earlier, but Alan's a dick. By the way, we're now a bit past the halfway point for the whole damned movie and we're finally getting to adults playing with a dead thing. Roy and Emerson are stuck re-filling the graves that were opened and everyone else goes back to the cabin. And, unseen by anyone else in the film, one of the exhumed bodies starts to twitch its hands...

Back at the cabin, Alan repurposes a curtain as a wedding veil and holds a ceremony where he can "marry" Orville. Somwhere, Fox News is planning to use this clip to attack Obamacare. If only one of the actors had mentioned Benghazi in 1973 it would be perfect for them. Also, Alan's smug laughter in this scene makes a long movie even longer. To be fair to the filmmakers, there's actually quite a bit of suspense generated here because Orville is played by an actor instead of being a prop. Everyone knows that at some point, he's going to open his eyes and start moving around. This is undercut by it not ever actually happening until the last twenty seconds of the movie, unfortunately, but I have to give credit where it's due. There's also a bit of a resemblance between the makeup plan for Orville and the ghoulish figure from Carnival of Souls that may or may not be coincidental (dark eye sockets, pasty flesh and a suit are pretty much what you'd have to go for whether or not you'd seen Herk Harvey's unnerving masterpiece). And is that a bullet hole in Orville's forehead?

Lens one.

Lens two.

Alan wants to keep the "marriage" and party going as long as he can, but Anya freaks out and starts begging the dead for forgiveness, saying that the actors didn't know what they were doing and want to be spared. This finally tips the power balance away from Alan and the actors decide to go back to the boat and then to the mainland. Even his oft-repeated threats to fire anyone that doesn't do what he wants don't work any more and everyone but Alan (and Orville) walk out the door.

But it's already too late. Emerson and Roy tried to swipe a ring from one of the bodies they were re-inhuming at exactly the wrong time. Roy winds up horribly wounded and Emerson gets killed; Roy's panicked flight from the attack leads the undead right to his friends. And again, credit where it's due, this is a great "all the dead people in the cemetery rise out of the ground" scene. Whatever budget they had to make the film got burned through in the last fifteen minutes and they come this close to making up for the previous hour and change. The ghoul makeup is just the usual oatmealish putty on the faces and hands but there's a lot of them, and the costumes are all suits and dresses that look appropriately shabby after the zombies dig their way out of the ground. The groundskeeper from earlier is still tied up, and "bound and gagged when the dead come looking for you" is a completely awful way to go. Full marks to the movie for that one.

Then it's the Readers' Digest Condensed Apocalypse back at the cabin, with the actors boarding up the windows and doors (and some nice sound design here, when the undead are pounding on the outside walls and doors at the same time the actors are hammering nails into the walls inside). Roy dies of his wounds. The big double doors with nice large glass panes get broken through and then boarded up. There's a great little shot when the zombies become aware they can't get in; they stop pounding on the outside of the cabin and just stand there waiting.

Paul comes up with a plan. Everyone but him will go out the front door and attract a swarm. He'll sneak out the back, go to the boat, and get help from the mainland while everyone else sits tight in whatever room looks the safest. It works perfectly except for Paul getting eaten about fifty yards from the back door, his girlfriend getting hauled out the back door to her death (by the way, people--if you're in a zombie siege, close the damn door when you leave the Alamo) and eventually Alan figures out to look for a counterspell in the book. The good news--there is one. The bad news--you need to return the body that was the focus of the ritual to its grave in order for it to take effect. Alan reads the spell anyway and the zombies all shuffle away back to the graveyard. Hey, maybe it actually worked!

Nope. Everyone gets suckered by the zombies walking off and the Cast Thinner is further applied when they try to escape. Alan and Anya are the only two survivors at this point and run back to the cabin, which is overrun pretty much instantly. Alan and Anya run up the stairs, and Alan throws the woman to the zombies in order to buy himself a couple more seconds to get away. Everyone--even the zombies--throw Alan the stink eye for being such a dick. He barricades himself upstairs in a bedroom, but happens to have picked the one with Orville in it, who is sitting up on the bed, eyes wide open. It's all over but the screaming at that point, and the zombies go down to the dock and into the boat. Wherever the mainland is (the film was shot near Miami but the establishing shots of the city are so dark and blurry that I couldn't tell what it really looked like), they're going to have a pretty big problem as soon as the ghouls learn how to start that boat's engine.

What an overlong, joyless slog this movie is until the last reel. Way too much talking with Alan throwing his weight around long past the point where even the stupidest audience members get it, way too much of the same scene repeated when Alan threatens to fire someone for starting to show a little backbone. Though this is offset partially by Alan's utter uselessness in the crisis at the end. The whole film has glimmers of craft and competence sporadically popping up during its run time, but overall you're looking at an hour of irritated boredom before the admittedly boss final act. Clark does make some great blocking choices to increase suspense during the interminable first 80 percent of the film, and I did like the way he established the geography of the island (dock to graveyard to forest to cabin), which means the viewer knows how far away escape is when things go completely awful. But it's too little and much too late to make the film itself a success. There are far worse zombie movies out there, but there's also so many better ones that I can't recommend this movie to anyone but a diehard zombie film completist, and even then I wouldn't go to any real effort tracking it down.

This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for today’s entry are:

The Terrible Claw Reviews:  Crocodile

Yes, I Know:  The Curse of Frankenstein

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