Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Census Bloodbath: A devil in a blue dress


Directed by Bruce Pittman
Written by Ron Oliver
With Wendy Lyon (Vicki Carpenter), Justin Louis (Craig Nordham), Beth Gondek (Jess Browning), Beverly Hendry (Monica Waters), Brock Simpson (Josh), Terri Hawkes (Kelly Hennelotter), Richard Monette (Father Buddy Cooper), Michael Ironside (Principal Bill "Billy" Nordham), and Lisa Schrage (Mary Lou Maloney)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Happy Halloween!  It's time for our fourth annual Old Switcheroo!  As our friend Brennan Klein of Popcorn Culture plies his way through the sci-fi of a bygone era, I put on his face (humanely removed, I assure you) and swim through the great lake of viscera and boobs we call... the 1980s.

Let's play catch-up for a second: 1980's Prom Night is, all told, a fairly lackluster affair, with practically nothing to recommend it except for the participation of Jamie Lee "Laurie Strode" Curtis and Leslie "Leslie Nielsen" Nielsen and, perhaps, the fact of its murky black cinematography, which makes it the only slasher movie I'm aware of that can be enjoyed equally by both the seeing and the blind.  In any event, there's no reason in the world it should have spawned a franchise.  And it didn't.

Rather, at some point between the production of The Haunting of Hamilton High and its distribution to actual theaters, Alliance Films decided to tie it to the JLC vehicle, on the sound reasoning, I suppose, that both were Canadian, and that it was just barely possible that seven years later somebody still actually cared about Prom Night.  (Even so, one's happy to split the difference: The Haunting of Hamilton High is a tremendously unappealing title, in itself, while Hello Mary Lou, referencing the old Ricky Nelson song, is far more engaging, and that's the case even if they did apparently need to append the name Prom Night II to get to it.)

I also enjoy how it rhymes!

But, beyond their shared nation-of-origin, a franchise regular (Brock Simpson) playing a different character, and their titular high school event, they don't have the slightest thing in common.  That's why we're lucky Alliance Films didn't own the rights to the name Carrie—because while I can't imagine any quicker way to make me hate this movie, it really wouldn't have taken more than two hours' worth of rewrites to actually make Hello Mary Lou a very direct sequel to De Palma's masterpiece.

Then again, that's not giving screenwriter Ron Oliver or director Bruce Pittman the right credit, because Hello Mary Lou, while it is, tangentially, a Carrie rip-off (for telekinesis does feature rather heavily in the plot, as do bitchy teen girls—though you can, I suppose, say the same thing about almost literally any horror film of the 1980s), what Hello Mary Lou really wants to rip off is Nightmare on Elm Street (though, fair enough, you can say that about almost literally any horror film of the late 1980s).  Of course, what it actually manages to rip off is Nightmare on Elm Street 2.  Good for it.  Oh, and there's some Exorcist thrown in here too, and why not?  However, since those scenes exist primarily to demonstrate that invoking God to beat up a vengeful ghost is only fun if the vengeful ghost sets the turbulent priest's Bible on fire before savagely killing him with a cross, I'm perfectly happy to give it a pass on that.

In fact, I'm perfectly happy to give the whole pastiche a pass: it's not remotely surprising that the franchise took this film's lead for the next sequel, since Hello Mary Lou is, itself, rather good.  But still, as I said before, it really wouldn't have taken too much to have reforged Hello Mary Lou into The Rage: Carrie 2, some years before its time: our story begins in 1957, on the night of the Hamilton High prom.

Presently, however, we find ourselves in a Catholic church, where a young woman is confessing her many sins to a priest, especially the carnal ones, only to reveal that her main goal in coming here, besides spitting in the face of Christ's representative on Earth, was to scrawl her name and number in lipstick on the confessional wall, which I can imagine would be some pretty savvy advertising.  We'll follow this joyful slattern—one Mary Lou Maloney—out to the prom, alongside her stolidly unsexy boyfriend, Billy.  With this in mind, it's not exactly a tremendous surprise when she steals away the first chance she gets, with a boy she actually does want to bang.  Unfortunately, Billy finds out; and as Mary Lou ascends the stage, about to be coronated Prom Queen of 1957 (because if there's one thing Hello Mary Lou is not interested in at all, it's a realistic depiction of the social dynamics of 1950s high schools), Billy's found himself in possession of a stink bomb, and has improvised a little revenge.  Tossing the bomb from the rafters, he gets all he wanted, and more: the fuse lights her dress on fire, and Mary Lou goes up, like a Roman Catholic candle.

And it probably smells bad, too!

So far, so good: although only by tradition a "slasher," Hello Mary Lou's already gotten ahead of the game, with a bitchin' firesuit sequence and a crime committed roughly one generation ago.  Sounds a little familiar, doesn't it?

Flash forward 30 years: Hamilton High's still there, and, naturally, teens are still having a bad time of it.  Consider Vicki Carpenter, for example, in the running for this year's prom queen.  (And yes, this is one of those movies: if the trope soup didn't tell you, then the characters' last names will, that somebody wanted to pay their respects to the big dogs.)  Vicki's family life is unhappy, mostly because of her egregiously religious mom (her dad seems cool—initially), and when her request for a new prom dress is refused, she makes do with what she finds in a certain old trunk in the school's art department, which happens to be where the authorities dumped the slightly-singed symbols of the office of prom queen, from when Mary Lou Maloney briefly held it, back in '57.  In other words, Vicki's opened a gateway to hell, and she doesn't even know it yet.  By the time her best friend's "committed suicide," though, Mary Lou's gained a lot of power, and she's going to use it to take her revenge, and to take over a shiny, lithe new body, which she plans to use exactly as she sees fit.  And so, while Vicki's mind and soul are invaded by this powerful spirit, Mary Lou makes herself known to her old enemies, and they scramble for a way, any way, to stop her.

Clearly, the worst thing about Hello Mary Lou is that... actually, scratch that.  We'll circle back.  In fact, the worst thing about Hello Mary Lou is simply that it's cheap, and what it wants to do, it really doesn't have the money to entirely pull off, though it admirably tries and admirably gets most of the way there.  The second-worst thing is that Hello Mary Lou is slightly, very slightly too long.  It runs a full 97 minutes, and it frankly doesn't need a few of them, notably two rather bad ones right at the end (a fakeout happy ending that gains the film absolutely nothing that its descent into an optical effects vortex hadn't already achieved).  It could, perhaps, stand to have lost another three or four somewhere in the lead-up to Mary Lou's rampage, too, which has the bad luck of being populated by barely-there slasher film characters and dialogue.  It's not unpleasant—we are used to this—but it is a teeny-tiny little bit boring, with only the designated comic relief goofball Josh coming off as having any detectable personality beyond the supplied traits of "being short-tempered," "being pregnant," "being Vicki's boyfriend," "being Vicki's enemy," or, well, "being Vicki."

But that approach doesn't fail, at least not completely: it's probably giving the film slightly too much credit to say it intentionally left Vicki a cipher—this put-upon kid who doesn't even so far have an identity to call her own—but at least it makes sense why she'd be the one Mary Lou chooses to wear like a dress, and Vicki's snoozy girlishness makes for one hugely stark contrast with the enormous force of personality Mary Lou confronts our heroine with, and soon enough smashes our heroine upon.  To wit: Hello Mary Lou is possibly the first slasher film I've ever seen where the obligatory nude scene has felt motivated by anything other than a hard-on.  Director Pittman is pretty damn cagey with it, too: as we cycle through a half-dozen opportunities for nudity that any other slasher director would've jumped at immediately, there's not the littlest hint of unbound breast or butt, until right about halfway through the whole film.  That's when Vicki's Wendy Lyon just walks right through the locker room, fearless and hateful and hairy where she ought to be, and while I'm completely certain that this was done in part simply to meet Pittman and Lyon's contractual requirements (and I'm equally as certain that someone, somewhere, has indeed masturbated to this scene on VHS, because it could've easily been me), the sensation honestly is more one of creepiness than anything else, as Mary Lou-inside-Vicki uses the excuse of having her predatory shower room bisexuality rebuffed in order to effect this film's sickest supernatural kill of all.

And I guess that does finally bring us back to the third-worst thing about Hello Mary Lou, which is that it's basically a movie about an evil slut, who's evil, because she's a slut—or maybe it's the other way around.  It doesn't matter for her victims, anyway: Mary Lou's roaring rampage of revenge is very much not confined to her legitimate targets.  Meanwhile, her lunging sexuality makes Dr. Frank-n-furter look restrained.

Just kidding, they're about on par.  (Your favorite musical endorses rape.)

And that's, you know, potentially uncomfortable.  But let's look at it from the bright side instead: Hello Mary Lou puts some much-needed diversity into the 1980s' line-up of fun sex murderers.  And Mary Lou is nothing if not one hell of a lot of fun.  Lyon, to say the least, is vastly more compelling once she's been taken over by the malevolent spirit; and Mary Lou's human mode, Lisa Schrage, is even better, a swaggering incarnation of carnivorous femininity, almost drunk on her own damn horniness, not to say her own sexual power.

In some senses, yes, you can say the mid-80s' post-Nightmare turn towards supernatural horror was a betrayal of the slasher genre; after Craven got ahold of it, they pretty much stopped being mystery-thrillers with gore, and turned into fucked-up fantasy movies in all but name.  But there's a reason Freddy Krueger's new blood reinvigorated this species.  After all, there are only so many metallic objects in the world, and so many ways to kill women with them; but there are as many Lynchian nightmares as there are minds to dream them.

And the further away from waking logic this film gets, the better it always is: Vicki's room's little girl decor, twisted toward evil; the classroom chalkboard that becomes a hungry basin of liquid mercury; and, especially, Mary Lou's incredible resurrection, the Carrie riff to beat them all, as the thirty year cycle of bad proms at Hamilton High continues apace.

It is, nevertheless, a ratty little exploitation film, and a flawed one.  Its reach routinely exceeds its grasp (as much as I enjoy Vicki's invasive dream sequences, the first thing they reminded me of was the video for "Total Eclipse of the Heart," not Nightmare on Elm Street, though I don't suppose that's a bad thing).  It is largely poorly-acted, with the major exceptions being Lyon, sometimes, and Schrage, every second she gets on screen (which, due to the premise, is not very much), and Michael Ironside, as the killer who got away with it all those years ago, although even in Ironside's case, it's more of an example of "hey, it's Michael Ironside!" than it is an especially committed performance.  The jokes aren't very funny.  The gore could be more comprehensive.  The costuming and the regular makeup design could be significantly better; Vicki never actually looks like she's trying to relive the 50s.  Ultimately, Hello Mary Lou gets by mainly on the merits of Pittman's competent staging, the limited-but-noticeable imagination of its imagery and kills, one and a half good performances, and a slowly-but-surely-quickening sense of pace.

It's not great!  But for a thing that wears its bandwagoner status like it was a badge of honor, and was marketed as a cash-in sequel to a piece of shit, it really is kind-of great.

Killer:  Mary Lou Maloney
Final Girl: N/A, but if I had to choose... Craig, I guess
Best Kill: When Monica hides inside a locker to get away from Mary Lou-inside-Vicki's rapiness, Vicki crumbles the entire structure around her and turns her victim into a lovely stream of delicious soft-serve spam


Sign of the Times: Mary Lou's signature song was first recorded by Gene Pitney three years after she died, and made famous by Ricky Nelson four years after she died, because, in 1987, no one was able to look this up on Wikipedia.  Take that, you fucking savages
Scariest Moment: Mary Lou's reborn body tearing its way out of Vicki's disposed-of corpse like an egg sac
Weirdest Moment: Mary Lou, having possessed Vicki, french kisses Vicki's dad, and Vicki's dad does not object.  You can put your pants back on with this one, too.  It doesn't go anywhere
Champion Dialogue: "You remember young love, don't you?  Maybe not."
Body Count: 8 confirmed, 2 probable
1. Mary Lou, Carried to death, due to her out-of-control whorishness
2. Jess, arts-and-crafted with ghostly telekinesis, right through a third story window
3.  Father Buddy learns there is no God, but there is Mary Lou
4.  Monica, crushed in a locker
5.  Virginia Carpenter, thrown through a window for having the temerity to object to her husband making out with their daughter
6.  Josh, killed by the one he loves, his computer (though Mary Lou and optically printed "blue" effects helped)
7.  Vicki, shot to death from a catwalk, before the Mary Lou spirit inside her could be crowned prom queen
8.  Billy, who knows that the only way to defeat a ghost is to give it what it wants
9.  Craig and
10.  Vicki again, who both subsequently learn that, actually, Mary Lou just wants to fuck shit up
TL;DR: Though it nakedly thieves from other, better movies, Hello Mary Lou's unique villain and enjoyable imagery give it an edge over the other supernatural horror also-rans of the late 1980s


  1. I could have literally made all three of my Census Bloodbath picks Prom Night entries, but I figured I'd dip that toe in first. I'm glad you liked it OK, it's definitely one of the most bonkers paranormal slashers ever conceived.

    Also that Champion Dialogue is CHOICE. I don't even remember that line, but I'm already itching to rewatch it.

    1. I think it's verbatim, but I was going by memory ( which is why one of the body count victims is missing, bleh).

      Sorry I'm late with these! As I mentioned, work's been busy.

      I watched Happy Birthday to Me just last night, though, so it'll be up tonightish, before we turn to early winter's first centerpiece, Thor motherfuckin' RAGNAROK! Well, I'm excited.

  2. This fantasy gem has little in common with Carrie other than the setting and age of the protagonists; militant religiosity, rather than a violent mania, is shown as an extreme opposite to hedonistic delinquency. The telekinesis used is deliberated poltergeist energy. Despite the readiness of critics to dismiss horror acting and characterisation, that here is quintessential to the film’s appeal. With perfectly natural likeability, script and cast infuse this tale of corruption and possession with credible hedonism, humiliation, care, conscience, guilt, despair, blooming tenderness, insecurity and anxiety.