Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Census Bloodbath: A boy's best friend is his mother

aka Slasher aka Nightmare at Shadow Woods

It wouldn't be October without Brennan Klein of Popcorn Culture and Alternate Ending, and so I'm ecstatic to present our tenth annual Halloween Switcheroo, wherein I get to chew on some hunks of bloody meat from his field of expertise, the 80s slasher, while I throw him some wholesome stolid science heroism from the 50s.  This is an abbreviated year, which is a shame, and while all things will pass into the nightnot this one, not yet.

Directed by John Grissmer
Written by Bruce Rubin

Spoilers: moderate

The word is "whew," because while good Brennan has always been kind in his assignments, the tradition of our nine prior Switcheroos has been that we've assigned one another three movies, and since most movieseven slasher movies, believe it or notare made to be good, I've always felt that the odds of three slasher movies chosen at semi-random all being bad were pretty low.  However, the odds of just one slasher movie being bad are, at least, not to be scoffed at.  And hence my sigh of relief: offered a choice out of a slate of three (thereby making it my fault if I got it wrong, Last Crusade-style), I chose 1987's Blood Rage.  I chose it on the very sound basis that it's a Thanksgiving slasher movie, not unlike an upcoming 2023 slasher movie, the straightforwardly-titled Thanksgiving, because the former would help give me grounding for the latter.  With decision-making like that, I would've deserved a bad movie.

Instead, I got what might be my favorite Census Bloodbath assignment in years, and despite this one being positively replete with technical weaknessesa downright aggressive sense of its own junkiness, franklyI'm nevertheless happy to describe Blood Rage as "good."  I'd be even happier if it had retained its so-very-clever working title, Complex, given that it's a movie about an Oedipus complex that takes place almost entirely inside an apartment complex; you have to understand, I'm a pitifully simple person, and I'd have found that delightful.  (Confusingly, it was originally released under neither name: filmed in 1983, it only managed a heavily-censored theatrical run four years later, under the more-or-less agreeable title, Nightmare At Shadow Woods; it then went to home video, with restored goreI thinkand while the packaging identified it as Blood Rage, the title sequence itself identified it as Slasher, yet another working title used during its development, presumably before they came up with a real name.)

Blood Rage
, or whatever you'd like to call it, is not, for the record, all that much about Thanksgivingat least it's not in terms of much holiday gimmickry, and the majority of the dialogue forgets that it's that time of November, whereas at least half the cast never seems to be aware of it in the first placethough insofar as it is about how sometimes unwanted relatives show up at your door for Thanksgiving, I don't suppose that I could honestly say it doesn't capture a certain kind of Thanksgiving experience.  Of course, since a memorable scene involves a couple fucking on a diving boardat an outdoor pooland this isn't presented as any kind of terrible hazard (at least not in and of itself, because the pool hasn't already been drained, though it does get them killed), I guess it's about a pretty specifically Floridian vision of Thanksgiving, too.

And so our tale begins and ends in Jacksonville, FL, where ten years agoso, presumably 1973middle-aged Maddy Simmons (Louise Lasser) has gone on a date to the drive-in with her new boyfriend.  Unfortunately for everyone, she's had to drag along her two sons, identical twin brothers Terry and Todd (later Mark Soper as an adult, and presently Keith and Russell Hall, actual twins).  It seems like the grown-ups might get a chance at a little action once they fall asleepwhich we would call inappropriate, and we'd be right, but have you ever wondered how there could be eight billion people today when for the vast majority of human history most human families haven't had a thousand square feet to call their own? pretty gross when you think about itbut, in any case, Terry and Todd aren't sound asleep, and Terry, unlike his billions of pre-20th century counterparts, has been all but driven mad at the knowledge that his mother lets (other) men touch her.  When he spies another couple, straight-up banging away in their own car, he smashes the man's face into pieces with an axe.  But Terry is no common psycho: he's kept enough of his wits about him to smear the blood all over his astonished brother, and place the weapon in his hand, shrieking his little head off about how Todd's a murderer.

A decade's now gone by for Terry and his beloved mother, but recently, Dr. Berman (Blood Rage's producer, Marianne Kanter) has managed to rouse Todd from the catatonia he settled into after the drive-in slaying; and this Thanksgiving, Todd breaks out of his asylum, driven to find his mother and confront his fraternal persecutor.  This isn't all bad news for Terry, though, for his impulse toward violence (his "blood rage," if you will) has lately been on the rise, thanks to his mother's engagement to the manager of their apartment complex, Brad (William Fuller), and with Todd back in the picture, and presumably even easier to frame than the last time, Terry's incestuous proprietorship over Maddy is primed to burst out all over everyoneMaddy and Brad, and Dr. Berman and her assistant Jackie (Doug Weiser), and Terry's own whole peer group, Karen (Julie Gordon) (the one suffering under a long-cherished crush on Terry), Artie (James Farrell) (the one suffering under a long-cherished crush on Karen), Andrea (Lisa Randall) (the one who doesn't suffer under "crushes" and has a nudity clause in her contract), and Gregg (Chad Montgomery) (the one who benefits the most from that, when Terry doesn't even notice Andrea making a pass at him, and who, in fairness, also has a nudity clause in his contract).

That's admirably contained and to-the-point for this genrecan you believe I got through a slasher movie's plot summary in a normal number of paragraphs?and while I cannot figure out what the "real" runtime is supposed to be (considering what I saw, I can't accept that I could have watched a censored version), suffice it to say for our purposes that Blood Rage is 79 minutes long, and in those 79 minutes, it achieves much that is good.  However, because I like the movie as a whole, in this case we should kick things off with the bad.

It's not really that long a list, but perhaps you'll recall, perhaps you won't, that when we discussed Cutting Class last year, we talked a lot about its cinematography and the strategic decision which that film's director and DP made about setting their horror movie mostly in the daytime, and mostly bathed in light, and how this was one of the things that made it cool, particularly as they still took care to shift their daylight aesthetic into something fainter and more shadowy in time for their climactic chase sequence.  Well, now we have Blood Rage.  Blood Rage is just Goddamn overlit.  It is astoundingly overlitbrutishly overlit, even, though this would be an insult to brutes, in the sense that if Blood Rage had been crewed by orangutans, the orangutans, by instinct, still would have paused to consider why almost every single room appears to have eight different key light sources.  Weirdly, the night exteriors are overlit but overlit normally, at least for a cash-strapped production erring hard on the side of cautionthe idea is a high concentration of mercury vapor parking lot lamps, and it's really moodless and pushed too far (we've clearly wound up with the actual lamps of the location and a surfeit of fill lights), but it's finebut Richard E. Brooks's interior photography?  It can more resemble the heart of the sun than rooms in an apartment building, and I'm not remotely ready to call that a deliberate choice, though I suppose (with the utmost charity) it's at least at its most egregious in Maddy and Terry's house, the shag-carpeted seat of the film's Freudian madness.

The other major problem is probably more irritating, because it's not a difficult technical question presented to low-budget filmmakers which, if I'd been there, I wouldn't have known how to solve either.  It's just the acting, and, really, just from one actor: Blood Rage is stacked, top-to-bottom, with the semi-professional immodulation of below-the-waterline 80s actors (along with the old-pro immodulation of Lasser's Maddy, responding to her son's escape from an asylum with a combination of wine, Thanksgiving leftovers, and OCD), but I'm apter to describe this as a good thing, as it affords this slasher its genre's customarily-enjoyable teen sex comedy larkiness.  But then there's Gordon, somewhat filling the role of the Final Girl, structurally, and hence tasked with the most third act running around; and Gordon is actively terrible at pretending to be a horror movie character, with a sense of almost embarrassed reticence to everything she does in this back third of the film, from her reluctance to scream to an apparent outright refusal to ever break into a sprint.  And goodness, it's not like she was ever going to trip over anything in the dark.

The big upside is that neither one of these problems comes close to actually mattering: "this movie that cost eight dollars has bad cinematography" is scarcely a serious person's complaint, especially when the only reason it's "bad" is because it's been rendered so starkly legible, and as far as craft goes, I don't have anything bad to say otherwise about John Grissmer's direction, or about Christine Williams's editing, and the electronic score, by real-deal serious composer-man Richard Einhorn, is genuinely superb, even when it's not blatantly ripping off John Carpenter, though it is ripping off John Carpenter, quite shamelessly, a great deal of the time (somewhat subverting that "real-deal composer-man" hype).  As for Gordon's Karen, that could have been a serious issue, but she's only ever a "Final Girl" in the most literal sense of that term, anywaynarratively, that function is filled a whole lot more by Todd.

And by contrast, I am very enthusiastic about everything here that involves Terry and Todd, Soper's performance(s) of the two, and the particular complexion of their particular evil twin story.  For starters, we have here one extraordinarily confident slasher set-up: this can't be the only slasher film where an evil twin's the one who got away with it by blaming the good onemy memory is dimming, but I'm fairly certain this already happened in at least two movies previously assigned to me by Brennanbut I'm also fairly certain this is the only slasher film I've ever personally seen that openly tells you this, rather than saving it for an obligatory dumbassed twist.  Grissmer, Soper, and screenwriter Bruce Rubin seem to have determined to avoid each and every one of the presumably overwhelming temptations to screw with their audience on this count; and while characters in the film naturally make the mistake, I don't believe Blood Rage itself ever tries to fool younot even for a second!about whether the character we're looking at is Terry or Todd.  (Even as a matter of the visuals, there's no possible mistaking them: paranoid, half-crazed Todd looks like he's constantly just gotten out of the shower, while Terry's hair is immaculately coiffed in an 80s sociopath mullet; it is, indeed, the first thing Terry makes sure to take care of when he gets out of the shower.)

And what this clarity of intention means is that Blood Rage is permitted a unique and quite marvelous energy, where the name of the game is pure perverse suspense, as we follow Terry around and wonder exactly when and how he's going to strike, with Soper smirking his way through the entire film, amazed at his own good luck to have such oblivious victims.  I'm less impressed with his Toddit's most valuable as a blunt differentiation from Terry, though on its own merits, outside of the extremes of the finale, I'm not sure Soper's cookie-cutter man-child rises above "okay"but then, anything that would throw Soper's Terry into sharper relief amounts to a very good choice, because his Terry is excellent, an 80s sitcom teen heartthrob with the brightest green eyes, turned towards evil and cheerfully bouncing from murder to murder.  Which brings us to another unique aspect of Blood Rage, namely that Terry is triggered, almost exclusively, by male sexualityhe usually kills the women, too, but, I mean, how many characters should survive a slasher film?but there's a special ire reserved for the male victims here (and sometimes the female victims are killed offscreen and only discovered much later) that gives Blood Rage's sex murder a different timbre from the standard fare, where the male victims are, typically, a bit more incidental to the process.

This would be interesting only in a dryly-academic sense, of course, if the movie didn't have the grue to back it up, and by Jove it doesits four years of post-production languish meant that when it was released, it flew into the teeth of an MPAA that had grown hostile and powerful in the interval, but thankfully Kanter, or somebody, kept the cut segments around, because the full version of Blood Rage comes armed with some tremendously strong gore courtesy famed makeup technician Ed French.  Depending on your priorities, you could grouse that it peaks too early: the fate of the teen at the drive-in is legitimately horrible, with one of the most realistic-looking injury prosthetics I've ever seen to sell the illusion of the deep cleavages that young Terry's put into his face, with a placement of the wounds that makes you sure this represents a slower and much more painful death than your slasher flick baseline; subsequently, they veer rather more cartoonish, though they range from merely slightly cartoonish (a head suspended from a patio roof) to extremely cartoonish (severed body parts still demonstrating significant muscular power).  But they are, all of them, most lovingly-crafted.  Even the silly ones retain some affective power since, in another departure from slasher standards, not a one of these folks has earned their punishment by being annoying.  And almost right when Blood Rage has run out of cast members to mutilate, we barrel directly into a climactic three-way confrontation between Terry, Todd, and Maddy (that involves Karen, too, but less as a "Final Girl" than "Final Third-Party Observer").  It gets weird and psychologically dangerous and, hell, even kind of sad.  My last and littlest complaint about the movie is that, at this point, it might as well have just gone all the way with its ideas.  But I dig the semiotic deployment of water here (by way of the indoor swimming pool; this ritzy complex has both!), and it's pretty outstandingly bizarre and fearlessly-acted in the moment, with some darkly nihilistic final frames that leave things nerve-rackingly unresolved.  It's probably not one of the forgotten classics of slasherdomprobablybut it absolutely deserves a higher profile than it has.

Killer: It's Terry, you fools!
Final Girl: Functionally speaking, Todd and Maddy
Best Kill: A competitive field, but I'm going to go with the guy at the drive-in's savagely hacked-apart face
Sign of the Times: Maddy and Terry's green shag carpet and pink walls, I wish my house looked like that, but it's got to be all tasteful and shit
Scariest Moment: Subsequent to the fun Thanksgiving prank Terry plays on Andrea's mom Julie (Jayne Bentzen) and her date Bill (a cutely-cameoing Ed French), he takes a moment to kindly put a robe around her, so she's nice and cozy and warm before he kills her 
Weirdest Moment: In mid-killing spree, Terry stops to urinate
Champion Dialogue: "It's not cranberry sauce!" (three or four times); alternate pick: "Aren't you glad these aren't the bad old days when all men wanted to do was fuck?"
Body Count: 11
1. Drive-in boy gets his face minced with an axe
2. Brad has his hand lopped off with a machete and, we learn later, his skull cleaved in twain
3. Jackie is stabbed through the torso
4. Dr. Berman is sliced in half
5. Bill is decapitated and used for decoration
6. Julie is stabbed in the chest
7. Gregg has his throat cut
8. Andrea is killed offscreen
9. Artie is poked in the jugular with that meat fork thing I don't know the name of, and rapidly exsanguinates
10. Terry is shot to death by Maddy, but by accident, for she believes she's slaying Todd, even after anyone with so much as a tenuous grip on reality would have realized Terry was the villain all along
11. Realizing her filicide targeted the wrong child, Maddy shoots herself in the head
TL;DR: Somewhat crummily-made on the most basic horror movie metric of "is it ever, even once, lit with spooky atmosphere?", Blood Rage compensates with a unique evil twin plot, fiendishly good kills, and a whole lot of enjoyable filigree on the edges.

Score: 7/10

Cardboard Science on Popcorn Culture
2014: Invaders from Mars (1953) The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Them! (1954)
2015: The Giant Claw (1957) It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) The Brain from Planet Arous (1957)
2016: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Godzilla (1954) The Beginning of the End (1957)
2017: It Conquered the World (1958) I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) Forbidden Planet (1956)
2018: The Fly (1958) Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (1958) Fiend without a Face (1958)
2019: Mysterious Island (1961) Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
2021: Robot Monster (1953) Queen of Outer Space (1958) The Cyclops (1957)

Census Bloodbath on Kinemalogue
2014: My Bloody Valentine (1981) Pieces (1982) The Burning (1981)
2015: Terror Train (1980) The House on Sorority Row (1983) Killer Party (1986)
2016: The Initiation (1984) Chopping Mall (1986) I, Madman  (1989)
2017: Slumber Party Massacre (1982) Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987) Happy Birthday to Me (1981)
2018: The Prowler (1981) Slumber Party Massacre II (1987) Death Spa (1989)
2019: Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge (1989) Psycho III (1986) StageFright: Aquarius (1987)
2020: Night School (1981) The Fan (1981) Madhouse (1981)
2022: Hell Night (1981) Return to Horror High (1987) Cutting Class (1989)
2023: Blood Rage (1987)


  1. Phrases like "the shag-carpeted seat of the film's Freudian madness" are exactly why I've kept this up for ten years.

    Since you mention his sitcom heartthrob vibe, it really does strike me just now that he really is just a murderous version of Steve Sanders from 90210.

    As far as twins go, I don't know about the exact formation of blaming the good twin you present here, but The Initiation has a very soapy plot with a twin twist, and Happy Birthday to Me has a Mission: Impossible mask situation where the killer exactly mimics somebody else.

    1. I was thinking, specifically, The Initiation and Madhouse. I'm not 100% sure the presumptive good one was evil in either (or rather, that there was no good one), but I do distinctly recall Madhouse strongly implying in its abstract, Italianate opening that the "good" one did terrible things to the "evil" one and then not really ever explaining what it meant by that.

      Of the twin slashers I've seen, I'm pretty sure this is my favorite. Even if we include Basket Case, which, hell, I think it would count.