Thursday, May 26, 2011

Final Exam (1981)

In honor of Horror Hound magazine's awesome tribute to all things 1981 in their latest issue, I decided to finally check out some of the titles I've had for a while, but have somehow managed to avoid.

Where do I start with this "gem"?

Lanier College in Anywhere, USA is coming upon the end of its system where...wait for exam(s) are taking place. One of the local frats pulls a pretty insane prank (I'll get to that in a little bit), which sets up the school nerd/tattletale/over-achiever/self-appointed genius Raddish, to become a whistle blower for all things abnormal. Of course the joke's on him because of the prank and now the frat wants to rough him up a bit and the backwoods sheriff accuses him of being a Boy Who Cried Wolf. Man...this kid can't get a break. Suddenly, students start dropping like flies and the bodies start piling up. Will Raddish call the cops again and risk looking like a fool? Will he survive his Final Exam?

Things start off promising with some cool, grainy cinematography.

Alright, so the poster looks kinda cool despite the obvious Friday the 13th ripoff. Maybe the killer is wearing some sort of cool mask that will make up for whatever shortcomings the movie might have . . .

Nah, he's a Gerard Depardieu stunt double wearing an olive drab Army longsleeve, a pair of jeans, and your average, shit-kicker work boots. Hardly impressive, right? Maybe he's got a cool backstory or some insane motive for knocking off all these stupid college students . . .

Nah, he just comes and goes with the wind. Dude doesn't even have a name for crying out loud!! I guess maybe writer/director Jimmy Huston was trying to channel the creepiness of Michael Myers' "killer with no motive"/pure eeeeee-vil vibe . . . but failed miserably.

Ladies and gentlemen: our killer.

Honestly, the only thing the killer can do well in Final Exam is catch arrows with bare hands and ride a dumbwaiter standing up(seriously!). The kills are pretty unimaginative and the gore is nowhere to be found except for some blood coming out of a victim's mouth or appearing on their face when their body turns in the last reel.

Raddish, as played by Joel Rice, should be the example of the type of character every Horror character shouldn't be. He's whiny, nerdy beyond words (the kid friggin' announces "I can't help it! I'm a genius!" when he finishes a final exam before the rest of the class) and probably wouldn't even be able to make friends with someone as annoying as Encyclopedia Brown. There's one scene where he visits a female character who's stressing about boys . . . to give her the sort of pep talk Stuart Smalley would blush over. Dude...and I'll only say this once: she's stressing about a guy who's being a butthole -- her defenses are down. Make your move! Give her that shoulder to cry on and those arms to hold her. But yeah . . . poor Raddish comes off like a
nerd prototype for "Degrasi, Jr High" (the original one). Dude gets what he deserves.

Somewhere, Jack Torrance is proud. I guess.

One of the things Huston tries to do to make Final Exam stand out from other slasher pictures of the times is focus more on the kids . . . er, college students. I'll give him an "A" for effort, but the execution is so terribly boring that it really makes the movie become bad ABC After School Special with "some" scenes from an amatuer slasher movie thrown in. There is so much time spent trying to develop the characters (none of which can really act all that well) that I forgot I was watching an '80s slasher movie!!

Remember that prank the frat pulls that I mentioned earlier? Yeah, well, speaking of forgetting which movie you're watching . . . early on, the killer is driving around in a black van, right? Not too long after this is established, another van -- which is brown and clearly doesn't look anything like the other one -- roles onto campus. Did the killer decide to switch vans? Did the production think no one would notice that they banged up the director's Uncle Seymor's van and figured the audience wouldn't noticed if they replaced it with a brown one?

The head-scratching continues when dudes in ski-masks, brandishing M-16's hop out and start mowing people down. Seriously.

Somebody better call The A-Team because some dollar store terrorists are shooting up the local college.

So Final Exam just turned into Kent State? I'm confused.

Oh wait . . . it's just the frat pulling a prank way too elaborate for their star keg-stander, Wild Man, to execute. They grab the "bodies" of the two kids who fall victim to their gunfire and drive off with them. Is this some sort of hazing prank, part of Hell Week? Oh, it's all a distraction so the lead frat guy can switch write a passing score on his final exam and waltz out of the building like he just finished his test.

Sure, the movie is pretty confusing, but you wanna know the single most insane bit about Final Exam? The DVD is currently out of print and copies of it are going for ridiculous prices on ebay and Amazon.

Go ahead and do a search right now. I'll wait.

Forget it, I'll show you myself.

Nuts, isn't it?

Yup. That's the body of a dumb jock stuffed into that skinny locker.

Anyway, this movie is pretty terrible and those who know me know that some of my favorite movies are pieces of trash. But man . . . this one sucks so hard. Skip it!

"Too Much Horror Business" by Kirk Hammett

For as long as he can remember, Kirk Hammett has found fascination, escape and even love within the world of horror movies. From nervous yet enthralled nights spent cowering behind the family sofa as another Universal Studios horror classic played on the black and white TV, to the recent years which have seen Hammett gather one of the largest private collections of movie poster art & memorabilia in the world, Kirk's love of the genre has never wavered. As the lead guitarist of rock superstars Metallica, Hammett has been able to indulge this passion and procure the art and artefacts from the world of fantasy and horror, which are only available to a select few. Each piece Kirk has bought holds emotional value for him, each one a memory, whether as a child or today. For this reason, Kirk has previously been highly reluctant to discuss or divulge the details of a collection of toys, posters, and props, which has developed a legendary reputation amongst horror enthusiasts and Metallica fans alike. Until now. "Too Much Horror Business" is the definitive record of his collection and the emotions attached to it. Presented in a full-colour, larger format volume, with three gatefolds, the book does real justice to his treasure trove of horror. This book is augmented with pages of handwritten notes and thoughts, plus a series of, conversation-interviews, which will offer a chronological thread starting with the young Hammett growing up in the Bay Area. For fans of horror, "Too Much Horror Business" will be an exciting journey through unique properties and pieces. For fans of Metallica, it will be the ultimate book about Kirk Hammett. And for the casual reader, "Too Much Horror Business" will be the rock 'n' roll coffee table book that offers an intriguing view into the mind of a horror-obsessed, superstar guitar hero.

The first time I can remember seeing anything related to Metallica was in a 1989 issue of Collectible Toys & Values, featuring all things related to Batman (the then current Tim Burton movie as well as the comic and 1960s television series). There was a photo of "Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett", an avid comic book collector, holding a copy of Detective Comics #27, the very first appearance of Batman, which he'd just purchased at a comic book show. Honestly, that photo sort of brushed under my radar, but little did I know that I'd just had a first encounter with the guitar player for what would eventually become my all-time favorite band.

Flash-forward to the present day and Kirk, his love of Horror, and his collection of posters and props are the stuff of legend among Metallica fans worldwide. He's worn countless Horror t-shirts on-stage in the late '80s (Night of the Living Dead and Hellraiser, to name a few), but aside from the odd photograph or video snippet in Some Kind of Monster, Kirk has never really shown much of his collection off to the public. So, when I won a Meet & Greet with Metalllica on 1/31/09, I knew I had to ask him about his collection.

We talked briefly about Chiller Theatre conventions (in '90/'91/'92, Kirk was often seen on-stage and in print wearing a t-shirt for Horror-Thon -- Chiller's original name -- or a Tor Johnson Chiller Theatre tee). I asked if he still gets a chance to go to them; he said not really, but he is still good friends with the show's creator, Kevin Clement. I then asked if he ever considered doing a book one day about his collection; more or less a coffee table photo book just detailing what he's got. He said he had actually been thinking about doing one, but it'd been very time-consuming just cataloging everything because, well, there's so much of it!

Kirk and I at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ 1/31/09.

More than a year went by before "Too Much Horror Business" (awesome title, btw) was finally announced and I couldn't believe my ears! Not only was Kirk finally doing a book on his collection, but the man was clearly not bullshitting me when I asked him about it way back when (of course, any Metallica fan knows how down to earth and real those guys actually are).

Recently, Kirk was on VH1 Classic's "That Metal Show", where he briefly discussed the book with hosts Eddie Trunk, Don Jamieson, and Jim Florentine. On the show, Kirk displayed a proof for the intro spread, where he's posed with life-size statues of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. What's cool about the statues is that they're wearing the actual, screen-worn costumes Karloff and Lugosi wore in The Black Cat and White Zombie respectively.

Regardless of how you feel about Metallica, if you're a Horror movie fan, this book will definitely be worth checking out. From the sounds of it, once "Too Much Horror Business" is released, we'll be seeing some long lost treasures.

Early reports are saying it's due out 10/1/12 (Kirk did say he was going to be working on it during Metallica's break in the early part of 2011), more information is available from

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Terror Train (1980)

After the one-two punch of Halloween and The Fog in 1978 and 1979, respectively, Jamie Lee Curtis was well on her way to claiming the title of "Scream Queen". With 1980's Terror Train, she officially embraced that title.

Terror Train has all the basic elements of a really good slasher movie...

-a cruel prank that went terribly wrong
-isolated location (in this case, a train)
-list of disposable teens with little character development
-killer with a cool mask/costume (more on this later)
-cool kills

Plot-wise, Terror Train has a pretty simple (and unique) setup. A year earlier, some freshman frat brothers and their girlfriends orchestrated a prank that took a very cruel turn for a young pledge named Kenny Hampson. Now, as seniors, the same fraternity is throwing a New Years Eve costume party, their "last big college party" (what are they gonna do for the rest of the school year? Must be a pretty lame fraternity, eh?) on a train. Faster than you can say "All aboard!" someone begins picking off people one-by-one and it doesn't take very long for Jamie Lee to figure out who it is.

Released during the first wave of Halloween knock-offs, Terror Train is easily one of the best of the bunch, sitting pretty closely with My Bloody Valentine in my eyes. One of the picture's most unique attributes is the setting: trains themselves can be kinda creepy, what with those narrow hallways and basically nowhere to go, right? Add to that a night time landscape set in the dead of winter and there's a recipe for goose bumps.

The train itself is a pretty ominous being, if not a character itself. That first opening shot during the credit sequence with the door of the train house slowly rising before the train starts plodding from within the smoky/foggy white light completely sets up the mood of the film. The train's whistle is also effective, as it sounds eerily like a co-ed screaming for her life.

One of the great strengths about slasher movies from the 70s and 80s is how much of their casts were complete unknowns. Any horror fan will tell you how distracting it can be with a cast populated by familiar faces (which is always one of the main complaints against modern horror). Aside from Jamie Lee Curtis, Hart Bochner (of Die Hard) and screen veteran Ben Johnson, the cast is mostly Canadian actors, all unknown to US audiences. Oh, and there's also a young David Copperfield as the "is he the killer or isn't he" Strangely Antisocial Magician character.

Speaking of Copperfield, a sizable portion of the movie is devoted to his magic routine and several tricks that he performs. I wish one day we'd get a commentary track from director Roger Spottiswoode, which could maybe shed some light on this part of the film. Was Copperfield, at the time pretty much an unknown illusionist, fairly strict on what could or couldn't be shown of his tricks and how they were to be filmed? Or were his tricks merely special effects? While he certainly wouldn't be winning any awards for his acting (he's obviously just playing David Copperfield here), he does pull off a convincing sense of suspicion whenever he's on-screen.

Jamie Lee Curtis is in fine form here as Alana, the girlfriend of one of the ringleaders of the prank their group wishes to forget. Unlike the rest of them though (either those directly responsible or those who merely follow), Alana feels bad about what happened -- as well as her role in it -- to Kenny. Aside from all of that, she's graduating early, which is essentially Creative Writing 101 stating that Alana is a smart cookie. Jamie Lee As Scream Queen always personified what the "Final Girl" character should be. She's smart, strong, and doesn't really take shit from anyone, including Doc, the self-appointed fraternity leader and the one with all the good ideas.

Doc, as played by Bochner, is a character cut from the same cloth as Keir Dullea's Peter in Black Christmas. He's moody, arrogant, conceited, and basically thinks his shit don't stink. He's also pretty much a tool, leaving the viewer wondering why anyone in their right mind would follow this guy's direction, let alone be his friend. Doc is the archetype of the boyfriend/jock who fends for himself and would probably use his girlfriend as a human shield in the face of the killer. His girlfriend is Alana's best friend, Mitchy, and well...there's some strange swinger vibe between them as they both ditch their significant other for an attempted romp with someone else's lover.

Another odd character is Alana's boyfriend, Mo (played by Timothy Webber, surely a long-lost brother to Sam Raimi). While he probably has the best intentions, he always winds up disappointing Alana and falling prey to Doc's juvenile pranks and jokes. On top of that, he blindly follows Doc in wandering off with a drunk co-ed behind Alana's back. WTF, mate?

Anyway, the coolest thing about Terror Train is the killer, Kenny Hampson. Since everyone is wearing costumes on the train, Kenny is able to change disguises as he racks up his body count. He's even able to make a Groucho Marx mask creepy as all hell! But, easily taking the crown for creepiest mask is that of an old man. Looking like a cross between a troll and a hairless version of Fluffy from Creepshow, the Old Man mask stands neck and neck with the Groucho mask as being the most effective and scary of Kenny's disguises.

Even with his face covered by a mask, Kenny's eyes stare daggers into his victims, potential or absolute.

In the end, Terror Train somehow slipped through the cracks in the wake of the mainstream popularity of the Friday the 13th and Halloween franchises. The VHS was long out of print for years (I initially had to resort to a fullscreen R2 Spanish import disc with a print that looked as though it'd had been buried in a coal mine) until 20th Century Fox finally decided to put it out on disc in 2004. I'm convinced big studios take so long to release classic horror titles on DVD because they're anxiously putting every single waking minute of creativity into creating a brand-new cover because the original poster/video art that convinced many a viewer to check it out in the first place completely sucks (end of sarcasm). The print looks good and, while it's essentially a barebones release (aside from the dirty, old fullscreen version on the flipside), it does contain the original theatrical trailer!

Anyway, yeah . . . definitely see Terror Train. It's crucial viewing for any self-respecting slasher fan. See it!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Friday the 13th: A Trip Back To Camp Blood

Alright, so it's actually Saturday the 14th at this point . . . but who's really keeping track? Actually, come to think of it, somewhere in the Friday the 13th series, this blog post would be perfectly acceptable as taking place on the "very next day" (see Part II and Part 3D. So, anyway, enjoy this photographic tribute to original Friday the 13th!

One of the coolest things about growing up in New Jersey was some of the amazing history and connections to things I'm interested in. Let's see, you got the home of The Misfits up in Lodi, there's the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, the Jersey Shore, and of course, Troma Films. But, this one definitely takes the prize -- in 1979, a small group of filmmakers headed by Sean S. Cunningham were making a little Horror picture that they were hoping would become the scariest movie of all time.

Little did they know.

Taking a page from John Carpenter's Halloween and Bob Clark's Black Christmas, Cunningham's aptly titled Friday the 13th shot in northern New Jersey in and around the towns of Hope and, of course, Blairstown. Camp Crystal Lake itself is actually a local Boy Scout camp called Camp No-Be-Bo-Sco, which may or may not still be active today (I say this because I've heard all sorts of conflicting reports that the camp was sold to the nearby Blair Academy school, with intentions to demolish it and turn the grounds into athletic fields).

DVD screen captures are on the left side of the page, with my photos on the right side.

Our first location is Main Street in downtown Blairstown. Seriously, this is pretty much the hub of Blairstown and the Friday crew utilized a lot from this location. Through some creative editing, the small strip of Main Street becomes all of the town of Crystal Lake. In the film, the first "present day" footage we see is of Annie, the cook for the soon-to-reopen Camp Crystal Lake. She crosses a small bridge as she enters town and heads.

As you can see in the photos, not much has really changed. My picture was taken back in 2008, but things really haven't changed since then. I have no idea what happened to the original bridge, but I'm sure the concrete needed significant repair work over time.

Still, regardless of the changes that have taken place, it really is a sight to behold as you first turn onto Main Street. If you're turning left onto the street, you cross the bridge, with the wall on your right, leading to the Old Mill.

Built in 1825 and acquired by the Blair Academy in 1903, the Old Mill was eventually placed on the State and National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of the Interior, so I'm pretty sure it ain't going anywhere.

In the film, Annie walks through the Old Mill's classic arch ways.

This location is right next to the bridge, so this one of few geographically correct locations in the film. As you can see in the pictures here, nothing has really changed (the pic here is actually from 2004, but again, it still looks the same).

It's also worth noting that the road to Camp No-Be is actually the one in the picture that winds off and up to the left. So, um, Annie . . . you're going the wrong way!

Here, Annie lazily wanders through the tunnel before exiting through one of the arches.

The smaller arched windows have been updated with solid panels of wood, though still keeping the original color scheme. I'm also pretty sure the overhead lights were added in recent years, though.

Annie walks through the second arch.

This is where things get interesting....remember what I said about the producers using some clever editing to make Main Street seem a lot bigger than it actually is? In the start of this scene, Annie comes in from one end of the street and here, she's coming from the opposite end.

In the screen capture, I'm not really sure what the red building Annie is walking down in front of. As you can see in the modern pic, the building has since been painted a ghastly light blue color. Why? I have no idea, but it's pretty much an eyesore as far as I'm concerned.

It looks like the building right next to it has had a bit of a facelift, though.

Next up is one of the most famous locations, which to this day, remains pretty much identical as to when Enos, the Truck Driver, drops Annie off at "the crossroads" . . . the Moravian Cemetery in Hope, NJ.

Hope is actually south of Blairstown, so Annie has quite a trek ahead of her if she's still walking to Camp Crystal Lake, don't you think so?

I remember the first time I actually went to Blairstown to check out the locations back in 2003; as we were heading north, I looked down the road to the left and immediately recognized the location. The Moravian Cemetery is just outside of Hope, NJ and, as you can see in the pictures, it looks pretty much the same.

The next location is the Blairstown Diner, where Steve Christy has a meal before making his way back to Camp Crystal Lake. And, personally, I think Sandy was totally flirting with him and trying to pick him up.

The diner, as it appeared in the film, looked pretty much the same on the exterior until at least 2004. The picture above is from 2003 and you can clearly see the large DINER marquee was still on the roof and the original green color to the exterior was still in place.

Unfortunately, sometime in 2004 or 2005, the diner was remodeled and "modernized" so to speak. I never did get to see it with the DINER marquee lit up (the place used to keep very odd hours, so I might have driven all the way up there in the evening, only to find it closed!). The interior of the diner is now very different, resembling your typical American diner establishment, with a large dining room area.

Above, this is what the diner looks like today.

Inside, Steve Christy sits at the counter as he finishes his coffee and Sandy tries to work her magic on him. "Two and a quarter."

In the film, Sandy's back is the front of the diner. I'm not sure if there was a large dining area in there (behind Steve, a little further down the wall) as it stands today. And, frankly, I don't remember it that way in 2004 when I went inside and had a seat at the counter, pretty much exactly where Steve sat.

At that time, my wife (then my girlfriend) Sandee and I were hesitant to go into the diner, as I'd heard urban legends that the locals are too fond of their town's connection to a cheap slasher movie from the 1980s. So, as we walked up to the counter and ordered a Coke, Sandee was able to take a pic of me (she was standing where the small booth is behind Steve Christy in the screen capture). I do remember that booth was either completely busted up and removed or in the process of being removed, as I don't recall an actual seat or table in that spot.

I used to go up to Blairstown every Friday the 13th and have lunch at the diner and, as it stands, it's not a bad little place! The food is great and the service is friendly and inviting. I highly recommend the chicken fingers and fries!

It's a shame though that everything had to be remodeled in the Blairstown Diner, but I completely understand the need to change with the times, ya know?

The last location I was able to get to was Camp Crystal Lake itself. I'm sure you've seen other blogs with actual photos of the camp (many of the cabins and other buildings are still standing and look the same, aside from a fresh coat of brown paint).

However, when I finally was able to find the Camp No-Be-Bo-Sco itself for the first time in 2004, I was really hesitant to step onto the grounds, as I'd heard that the staff aren't very welcoming to Friday fans (obviously).

It's quite a trip driving up the dirt roads to the camp itself . . . it definitely feels like you're in the movie!

Just before you reach the first main building (in the film, I think it's the Office that Alice and Bill break into to check the phonelines), Crystal Lake itself is immediately to the left (it's actually called Sand Pond)!

Anyway, needless to say, we didn't get very far on our drive onto the grounds, as we were immediately greeted by someone who wasn't straight up rude, but they weren't exactly extending an invitation to come on in and take pics. So, the above photo of Sand Pond is the only real photo I've got from the camp.

I'll tell you, taking a trip up to Blairstown is incredible and, if you're a Friday the 13th fan, you gotta go! Just driving in that area strikes a nerve (try playing the soundtrack as your driving around up there, too). I think it's definitely time to take another trip up there some time real soon . . .

Monday, May 9, 2011

Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things (1972)

After George Romero redefined what the living dead should (and could) be with Night of the Living Dead in 1968, there were scores of imitators. Most of them came from Europe (one of the best being George Grau's Let Sleeping Corpses Lie in 1974), but there were only a few American imitators.

This is one of them.

The story is pretty simple: a group of struggling actors accompany their hack of a leader to a remote burial island for criminals and general lowlifes; some real scum and villainy. The group is lead by the quasi-Manson, Alan (played to annoying perfection by Alan Ormsby, who also handled the make-up effects); basically, he knows these young actors are starving and hungry for work, so they'll do pretty much anything he says.

Alan's plan is to commit a little grave-robbing and hold a seance to raise the dead; knowing full well he's full of shit and merely wanting to have a laugh or three at the expense of his "children" in tow.

The catch? It works.

Before they know it, the acting troupe is surrounded by the living dead and seek refuge in an abandoned house (presumably the home of island's caretaker perhaps?).

Sure, the movie itself is really slow and the zombies don't show up until pretty much the last half hour or twenty minutes . . . but, there's just something about it that works. Honestly, I almost look at it as a prequel to Night of the Living Dead (the ending was later ripped off by Lucio Fulci for 1979's Zombie [aka: Zombi 2]).

The sequence where the dead return is truly creepy; director Bob Clark (of Black Christmas, Porky's and A Christmas Story fame) presents the action in an almost nightmarish way. Strange sounds pop from the soundtrack, a heavy mist envelopes the burial ground like a tablecloth, and some interesting zombie make-up all come together to make this sequence work.

If you're into gore, this movie might not be for you. Sure, there's a little bit of blood, but nothing to go hog wild over and, honestly, if you're a fan of Romero's zombies, you'll probably be disappointed.

One of the coolest things about the DVD version of this movie is the print quality. It looks like complete garbage. There's some incredible print damage, but it's not like the bootleg quality of Abby or Curtains -- just good old fashioned noise in the picture and scratches; hell there's even some really terrible color tone shifts and parts where the edge of the picture turns a minor red color! I love it! This really adds to the atmosphere and, for me, the overall enjoyment. I seriously can't imagine this movie looking as good some of the Blu-Ray remasters Anchor Bay or Blue Underground have released in recent years.

In the end, Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things is a fun little movie that certainly has its faults, though it more than makes up for them with its charms and payoff. See it!