Splatterfest ’90

February 24, 1990
Scala Cinema, King’s Cross, London

And after the away leg of Black Sunday, the home leg of Splattcrfcst ‘9O, played the next weekend at the Scala. This was undoubtedly the most eagerly anticipated genre event in London since last Shock, which meant there was a full house and the crowds arrived early: we turned up with just less than an hour to go before the doors opened, and already the queue stretched about 100 yards.

We got in and grabbed seats. pleasantly close to the front, then discovered, horror of horrors that there was NO FESTIVAL T-SHIRT. Jeez, what’s the point of going to these things if you can’t proclaim the fact on your back afterwards? Also, there was no programme to tell you what the running order was likely to be which. since nobody was sure which films had been pulled and which were on, left us a little in the dark. Eventual|y_ the first film was announced as ‘Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer’, and the director. John McNaughton, was introduced to the crowd to loud applause, with a promise that he, like all the other guests, would be available to answer questions afterwards. This was the case; up until “The Comic” [see later], each film with an appropriate guest was followed by a Q & A session. The guests generally hung around afterwards as well and l was impressed with their attitude and the way they were willing to take time and chat to the fans. On with the films…

HENRY, PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (John McNaughton) – Loosely based on the exploits of Henry Lee Lucas, an American murderer currently on Death Row for having killed, according to his confession. around about l50 people, all over the States. The film gained notoriety when the MPAA, the US equivalent of the BBFC, refused to give it a rating due to its ‘tone and intent“; they couldn’t suggest any cuts that would let them pass it. The film tells of Henry’s relationship with an ex-conmate Otis, and Otis’s sister, Becky, who has just left her husband. Henry did not have a happy childhood, to say the least. and he now kills people at random, whenever he wants to, carefully varying his modus operandi to avoid detection. At first, Otis & Becky do not know about this, but Otis eventually finds out after Henry kills two prostitutes they’ve picked up; Becky, on the other hand, is falling in love with Henry…

This is a dark movie. I cart see why the MPAA didn’t like it – there is very little gore compared to most slasher pics and, apart from one horrific sequence when Henry & Otis make their own snuff movie. not a great deal of violence. What makes it so chilling is the lack of any supernatural element to allow you to distance yourself front it and the fact that it’s based on reality (there are still many serial killers at large in America) doesn’t help.

The direction is gripping from the first frame to the last, aided by good performances especially from Michael Rooker as Henry ~ if perhaps you get to the end and think “What was the point? That wasn’t educational, informative or entertaining”, it’s not until afterwards, when you’re sitting on the bus wondering about the person sitting opposite, that you’ll realise you’ve seen a film with a totally original stance that will stay with you for a long while.

RABID GRANNIES (Emmanuel Kervyn) – Reviewed in TC3. and just as good on a third viewing. if anything. it’s getting better as each time I appreciate more of the parody – it’s a pisstake of the whole splatter genre, especially badly dubbed Italian pics; how you react to it depends to an extent, I suspect, on how you feel about the targets for it’s humour.

DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD (Roy Frumkes) – George Romero is one of the most often cited masters of the horror genre, thanks mainly to his ‘Night/Dawn/ Day of the Dead’ trilogy. This non-fiction piece traces his work on ‘Dawn of the Dead’, set inside and around a Pittsburgh shopping malt. I’ve never been a great fan of ‘The Making Of style articles, books or films, since I find it harder to suspend my disbelief if I know how a certain effect or shot was done. This, the fact that I’m not a die-hard George Romero fan and the absolutely hideous sound quality meant this was a bit of a disappointment to me – the best part was a commercial for washing powder directed by Romero. which was a nice parody of ‘Fantastic Voyage’. However, the O & A session with Frumkes’ afterwards was interesting – he came across as intelligent and articulate, with some fascinating (and potentially slanderous) anecdotes about Romero and Dario Argento.

COMBAT SHOCK (Buddy Giovanazzo) – I thought ‘Henry’ was grim, until I discovered… not Smirnoff. but ‘Combat Shock’. a Vietnam movie that deals with the horrific mental scars left on returning GIs. Frankie, played by the director’s brother, is a veteran without a job and no hope, but with a whining, nagging wife and a deformed baby caused by his exposure to Agent Orange. They live in a hellish section of New York where addicts cram fixes into their arms with coat-hangers, thugs hold sway and life is just one big vicious circle. The movie relentlessly follows his slide into crime 8 madness, which ends with him killing his wife, baby and committing suicide.

Done on a budget of just $60,000, this is without a doubt the most depressing picture l have ever seen – no character is remotely sympathetic; even Frankie, the most obvious target for audience association, is so screwed-up with his ‘Nam flashbacks, that there’s no empathy possible. Though you can feel for him, once again, the Vietnam factor comes into play – the only thing we British can relate that to is the Falklands and that’s a completely different kettle of fish, not least because we won. While ‘Henry’ was a frightening film, this isn’t. I’m not sorry I saw it – it certainly has plenty of redeeming qualities – but I won’t be making an effort to see it again.

The nest item up was a showing of ‘Within the Woods’, the original show-reel made by Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell and Scott Spiegel to raise money for ‘The Evil Dead’. This 30-minute, 8mm. film was an interesting comparison, both in terms of the similarities (certain shots were almost EXACTLY re-used in either Evil Dead or Evil Dead ll) and the differences (in the original, it’s a girl that survives, rather than Ash). Scott Spiegel had also brought along another short film, directed by Josh Becker. Titled ‘Cleveland Smith, Bounty Hunter’ and starring Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi, it was a l0-minute parody of Indiana Jones and got probably the best reception of the entire festival for its relentless array of slapstick humour (it’s no secret Spiegel, Campbell & Raimi are Three Stooges fans). Although it’s a pity that it was never expanded beyond a show~reel. I imagine Steven Spielberg would have started writ-writing had it gone any further!

Here seems an appropriate point to discuss the other short films and clips that were shown. There was a promo reel for ‘Maniac 2’ – I was in the toilet at the time, so we’ll move rapidly onto ‘Horrorshow’ which was a promo piece directed by Paul Hart-Wilder to by and win backing for a feature length film. There wasn’t a great deal to it. but then, it was showcasing the director’s talent and not the scriptwriter’s! The most impressive thing was a nine-minute advert for ‘Hardware’, a British film (partly sponsored by BSB, if I read the caption right!). While not being particularly original, ‘The Terminator’, ‘Max Headroom’ and ‘Blade Runner’ being obvious influences, it looks highly intriguing and with a terribly un~British quota of splatter ‘n’ sex.

THE LAUGHlNG DEAD (S.P. Somtow) – Better known as a writer, mainly of SF books, Somtow turned his hand first to script-writing. then to directing (when he realised he couldn’t afford union rates!) and finally to acting in his film: it’s one way of keeping the costs down! It starts of as a simple spam-in-a-Mexican-town film, with a variety of, mainly nasty, characters gathered together for a coach tour organised to fit in with the Mayan Day of the Dead (see next column). These include a priest and his bimbo(!). a couple of New Age freaks, an obnoxious kid, etc. The priest gets possessed by a Mayan death god, slaughters one or two folk and the police forbid anyone to ieave. Then the story changes tack and the spam, er, characters have to follow the priest into another world and defeat him.

On the plus side. there are some juicy effects – cheap, but well done and used effectively by Sorntow for a ‘virgin’ director — and some nice humour; Somtow the writer makes sure Somtow the actor gets most of the best lines! On the other hand, the story isn’t ALL that original, even if the setting is – the ending is a total cop—out. Not enough deaths either – any film that kills a kid gets 10 bonus points, and this one had a golden chance to do so, with a brat that deserved to die. but it wimped out. Still, overall, it was fun and since that was all it was meant to be, I’m not complaining.

I Was A Laughing Dead
During my time as a student in the Arts department at Pima Community College, in Tucson. Arizona, myself and a few other people were told by one ot the instructors that a production company was to film in Old Tucson. They needed about 100 people to be extras in the movie, dressed up as skeletons or zombies to take pert in Dia de los Muertos or the Day ot the Dead, a festival that makes up a small part of the movie. Celebrated on All Souls Day. it dates back to the pre—Co|umbian Indians and is a party-like event when people and families gather in churchyards to eat, drink, make music and polish the tombstones in the belief that this is the only night of the year when the dead can partake of food in spirit.

Dressed in black. we were picked up at the University ot Arizona and taken to the set where we were made~up, myself as a skeleton. Although we only shot around 3 or 4 scenes — in front of a saloon bar. an old church and in the streets — it all took about four or five hours, during which retreshments were provided. atter which we were taken back to the University by bus. I had the time of my lite and had danced with one of the math extras, who makes appearances through the film. Being an extra in ‘The Laughing Dead’ is an experience I’ll remember for a long time, and one that I’d love to repeat.
—- Elena M. Nitchman.

THE TOXIC AVENGER 2 (Herz and Weill) – See TC2. Ever wanted to fall asleep during a film, but not been able to?

THE COMIC (Richard Driscoll) – When this movie finished, there was a storm of applause front the audience. Unfortunately, this was because a lot of people were very glad to see the back of it – there was just as much applause for the guy who shouted out ‘We want an apology for that film’. lt wasn’t the fact that it was five years old and rumoured to be available in HMV for under a tenner that got to people (‘The Evil Dead II’, which was shown at the end for reasons I’ll explain later, is similar in that respect and was treated almost with reverence). It was just that… it wasn’t very good, shall we say.

What it was doing at Splatterfest is difficult to tell since it was just about 100% splatter-free — it was an ‘Eraserhead’ style picture, set in an indeterminate future time. about a prospective comic who kills a rival, falls in love, etc. It succeeded in all the minor areas. such as set design and costume, while failing in the important ones – the story was incoherent and inadequate and the acting was damn near laughable. especially from the lead actor. whose name shall be erased from the pages of history forthwith.

However, personally, I think if people don’t like a film, they should take a nap, go get a cup of coffee and just shut up and let those people who want to watch it, do so. No matter how bad the movie is, slow hand-clapping, shouting out ‘This is a load of shit’, etc has never to my knowledge got a film taken off, so it’s a pointless & annoying exercise only engaged in by sub-human morons who should be kept out of cinemas. All it’s done here is made one distributor pretty sure he won’t give any films to horror festivals in future.

There was no question and answer session after ‘The Comic’; the director had vanished without trace and the organisers decided it would not be politic to show ‘Cold Light of Day’, directed by the same man. Bit of a shame, because it wasn’t the direction that screwed up ‘The Comic’. Instead. we got:

BRAIN DEAD (Adam Simon) ~ This is one highly bizarre movie. that tries to double its audience by attempting to confuse the hell out of them to such an extent that they have to go back and see the film again. It stars Bill Paxton as a brain surgeon coerced by a multi-national company into trying to salvage the mind of one of their scientists (Bud Cort) who is suffering from severe paranoia. The whole boundary between reality and fantasy dissolves when the surgeon is knocked down by a car – from then on, we haven’t got the faintest idea whether we’re in a hallucination or the normal world. He keeps regaining consciousness only to find out that he was dreaming about waking up, or dreaming about dreaming. This bizarre, multi-level scheme, reminiscent of Jess Franco’s “Virgin Among the Living Dead” without the zombies (or the virgin for that matter!) only clears up in the last five minutes, leaving you wondering what’s been going on for the previous 90. How it all gels together remains a complete mystery to me, but at 3 am, it had a weird sort of logic…

BRIDE OF THE RE-ANIMATOR (Brian Yuzna) – The one everyone was waiting for. ls it as good as the original? Well, no. but it’s a nice try. With just about the same cast as last time, save Barbara Crampton, it begins with Herbert West down in Peru continuing his experiments on war casualties. Soon. he’s back at Miskatonic and this time, he’s less interested in restoring life than creating it. I don’t want to say too much about it, since half the fun are the surprises; but I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that this is based quite heavily on Frankenstein (‘The Bride of Frankenstein’ was the last sequel Brian Yuzna thought was any good!). So we get an acknowledgement to Mary Shelly [sic], a bride that looks straight out of Andy Warhol’s ‘Flesh for Frankenstein’ and Herbert West doing Peter Cushing impressions.

It’s perhaps no bad thing that Yuzna has gone for a different approach but with the exception of Dr. Hill. who makes a return appearance (or at least his head does), the whole first film might not have happened – we almost start from scratch again, which is a bit of a waste of time. The effects are generally messy and well executed. with the exception of one that might have come from ‘Batman’ (I mean that more literally than you realise!) – Jeffrey Coombs is, if anything, better now than he was in the original, though he has more to work with here. If it hadn’t been for ‘Re-Animator’, this would have been a highly acceptable FX feast — trying to live up to Stuart Gordon’s masterpiece is a different matter, and I came away feeling disappointed, for no reason I could work out.

And that was that, almost. To make up for the loss of ‘Cold Light of Day’, the organisers pushed in ‘Evil Dead I1’ to make up the ten movies, which I’d guess 95% of the audience had seen before, but it was tolerated since no-one could think of anything better to do at 5.30 on a Sunday morning. What started so well. thus finished in near disarray – however. as it was a first attempt. the organisers can be forgiven the odd faux pas. A little more care with the selection of films, a little better organisation and it’ll be up there with the best of them.