The essence of horror is one person, alone and helpless, screaming vainly into the dark as a killer approaches. So why do horror movies so often invite a crowd? What is it about a group of teenagers, a dinner party, or a circle of strangers at a creepy old mansion that inspires fear? Maybe it’s the illusion that there’s safety in numbers, which holds until one corpse after another starts turning up, at which point it becomes clear that no one, nowhere, is ever really safe.
Would You Rather (IFC Midnight) offers an especially fiendish spin on the “buy five murders, get the sixth free” horror subgenre. Most serial-killing movies separate the victims before picking them off, but director David Guy Levy and screenwriter Steffen Schlachtenhaufen keep everyone in Would You Rather in the same room, so they can watch each other die. The first sign of trouble for the movie’s cash-strapped heroine Iris (Brittany Snow) comes when she accepts a party invitation from eccentric millionaire Shepard Lambrick (Jeffrey Combs), then goes along with it when he asks her—a vegetarian—to eat steak and foie gras in exchange for $10,000. From there the night gets grosser, as Lanbrick gives his guests a series of impossible, increasingly macabre choices, involving slicing their own eyeballs, having their heads held underwater for minutes at a time, holding firecrackers in their hands, and worse. The one who makes it all the way through Lambrick’s twisted party game walks away with a pile of money.
Would You Rather sports an eclectic cast with widely varying skills, from the stiff Sasha Grey to the electrifying Enver Gjokaj to the cooly professional John Heard. But the movie still works, because Levy and Schlachtenhaufen don’t flinch from their premise. By framing the “How many disgusting ways can people die?” movie as a series of personal dilemmas, they bring in a moral dimension. This isn’t an entirely new approach. In some ways, Would You Rather is just a slightly classier version of Saw. Given Levy’s recent history as a producer of tasteful, artful indie films, there’s maybe some small element of self-criticism in him choosing to make some money by directing a seedy horror movie. But up until a lazy shock ending, Would You Rather is surprisingly sophisticated about how it chooses to disturb, focusing less on gore than on the sickness at the heart of the American social contract, which lets the rich buy lives, and thus prevents anyone without wealth from feeling wholly secure.
As a complement and counterpoint to Would You Rather, a pair of new-to-home-video slasher films shows how easy it can be to make a low-budget horror movie—and how hard it can be to make a memorable one. Blood Runs Cold (Vivendi), by Swedish writer-director Sonny Laguna, is about as bare-bones as the slasher genre gets. Hanna Oldenberg plays Winona, a singer-songwriter who tries to clear her head by staying in a cabin in the woods near her old hometown, but gets distracted when she meets her ex-boyfriend and his buddies at a bar. She invites them back to her place, where, unbeknownst to her, there’s an axe-wielding, super-powered, ski-masked cannibal squatting in the basement. Blood Runs Cold is distinguished both by its icy Swedish setting and the lengths Laguna goes to obscure it. The cast members speak English (mostly with either a weird John Wayne drawl or surfer twang), and they spend much of the pre-murder portions of the film having banal conversations about sex and hurt feelings, like they’re auditioning for a bad Hollywood teen sex romp.
That’s the first half-hour of Blood Runs Cold. The last 40 minutes are all about how much gore Laguna can extract from these pieces of cardboard. Laguna mixes digital effects well with old-fashioned liquid splatter, and cleverly imagines how the spurt from a decapitated head might look in subzero temperatures. But he doesn’t seem to have thought enough about how the people attached to those heads might behave, if they existed in the real world, and not in the cinematic version of an abattoir. Even Winona doesn’t get to do much but scramble from locked room to locked room, discovering frozen corpses and whimpering meekly while the killer hacks away at the door.
Steve Rudzinski’s Everyone Must Die! (MVDvisual) traffics in slasher clichés too, but with more self-awareness and good humor. Rudzinski imagines his unkillable killer as akin to a plague, popping up in different small communities and eradicating nearly everybody, leaving behind only a few people to go forth and try to warn others. This allows Rudzinski to go episodic, stringing together a couple of shortened versions of the standard slasher: one with four young people camping in the woods, and another with a group of college kids getting drunk at a house party. Everyone Must Die! also includes a prologue that establishes the mode of the movie, with one survivor shrieking, “Die, motherfucker!” over a grindcore soundtrack while trying—and failing—to dispatch the villain with a lawnmower.
Rudzinski’s cast is inept at stage combat, and it’s alternately amusing and annoying how every character has a one-note quirk: One’s a rapper who speaks only in rhyme, another is obsessed with eggs, still another uses golf metaphors constantly, and so on. (That conceit, though, does provide an excuse for the golf guy to smack the killer with a driver and shout, “Fore, motherfucker!” and, “It’s a gentleman’s game, bitch!”) Everyone Must Die! rightly embraces the amateurishness, roaming freely toward camp. Also, the ordinariness of all involved makes an unexpected difference. Rudzinski subverts the “sex” part of “sex and violence” by having his kids out in the woods be two gay couples, screwing in their respective tents before the slasher shows up; it’s just as radical that so much of the cast is made up of chunky middle-Americans instead of Hollywood types, such that when they get naked, they look like real people, not models. That one humanizing difference makes even Everyone Must Die!’s most wooden actors seem multidimensional.
By contrast, Alex Craig Mann’s Detention Of The Dead (Starz/Anchor Bay)—written by Mann, but based on a play by Rob Rinow—chokes on its own phoniness. And that’s too bad, because while Detention Of The Dead’s premise is corny, it isn’t inherently awful. Mann and Rinow are attempting to mash up The Breakfast Club and George Romero by sticking a nerd, a jock, a stoner, a cheerleader, a goth, and a popular stud into in-school suspension while the rest of their class gets zombified. The recurring gag here is that teenagers and zombies are largely indistinguishable, but the joke doesn’t land, because Mann and Rinow never push beyond the artificiality of movie-land. They have decent actors, but they all look and sound like actors wearing costumes and putting on a school play on the richer side of town, but without the low-rent cheer of Everyone Must Die!
Mann and Rinow try to buffer their movie with meta, by having characters discuss the rules and the right-wing moral order of other horror films, but that fails too, because it’s been done many times before, and because the script is heavy with sub-Whedon wordplay and pop-culture references. (The stoner particularly enjoys fashioning “zombie” portmanteaus, as when he calls one undead faculty member “Marian The Zombrarian.”) The most glaring issue here, though, is the general lack of imagination regarding who the heroes actually are. When the filmmakers think “nerd,” they slap geeky glasses and a tie on an otherwise good-looking actor, and ask him to speak nasally. In this movie, it’s the old stereotypes that are still lurching about, unwilling to stay dead.
Then again, it’s hard at this point for any filmmaker to do something new with the zombie genre. The Amazing Adventures Of The Living Corpse (Anchor Bay) is sort of a departure, but even it lumbers awkwardly. Animator Justin Paul Ritter adapts Buz Hasson and Ken Haeser’s comic-book series about a zombie who develops a conscience and tries to rescue his living son from a mad scientist. The original story twists zombie mythology by making it about two people—one undead, one orphaned—who are recruited into causes that run parallel to their personal quests. But the animation here is distressingly clunky, looking a lot like one of those Taiwanese current-events reenactments that go viral from time to time, or like a low-budget videogame cut-scene. An over-reliance on a sass-talking demon character doesn’t help either; it makes The Living Corpse come off like a bad Disney imitation, with badly computer-animated gore.
Stephen Fung’s Tai Chi Hero (Well Go USA) makes better use of modern technology, continuing a lot of what made its predecessor, Tai Chi Zero, so cool (albeit exhausting). Yuan Xiaochao returns as a fictionalized version of real-life martial-arts pioneer Yang Luchan, who in Fung’s series is a supernaturally gifted martial artist who desperately wants to learn the exclusive “Chen-style” kung-fu technique, shared only with the inhabitants of a remote village. As was the case with the previous film, the village itself is dealing with the threat of modernization, represented by the railroad companies and their technologically advanced (for the 19th century) private armies. The middle part of this projected trilogy is too much of a rehash of part one, bringing old-school kung fu and steampunk weaponry into conflict in a story that doesn’t progress much. But the Sammo Hung-choreographed fight sequences are as eye-popping as ever, enhanced by onscreen graphics that treat the action like a videogame, identifying characters and moves. It’s a gimmick that may well lose its pop by movie three, but for now, it’s still exciting.
It’s hard to know how to react to The Ghastly Love Of Johnny X (Strand/Ottermole), a true labor of love from writer-director Paul Bunnell. A black-and-white science-fiction juvenile-delinquent musical—shot on 35mm film, no less—Ghastly Love stars Will Keenan as an alien rebel who’s been banished to Earth with his mind-controlling “resurrection suit.” Once there, he joins a gang of toughs who style themselves as rockers, in the mode of the era’s fading rock idol, Mickey O’Flynn (Creed Bratton). There’s also a fugitive ex-girlfriend involved, and a desperate showbiz manager, but the plot here really takes a backseat to the big, 1950s-style musical numbers, written by Scott Martin and staged in diners, deserts, and massive, prop-strewn studios.
The Ghastly Love Of Johnny X received some publicity recently for being the lowest-grossing movie of 2012, which is a misleading story, because like hundreds of other indies every year, Ghastly Love mainly played the festival and rep-house circuit before arriving on DVD. And the film was well-received in those places it played. (It only received a one-week theatrical run in one Kansas theater as a prize for winning the audience award at the Kansas International Film Festival.) Bunnell’s film has also been lumped in by some with the “so bad it’s good” phenomenon, putting Ghastly Love in the same company as Birdemic and The Room. But that’s not right either, because this movie has excellent production values, and everything “terrible” about it is wholly intended. If anything, the main problem with The Ghastly Love Of Johnny X is that it seems to be trying too hard to be a cult hit, combining disparate B-movie elements willy-nilly, without developing either a plot or a point of view beyond “weird stuff is awesome.” Still, it’s hard to get too down on a low-rent genre picture with this much ambition and visual imagination, even though none of it ever coalesces.
For the kind of visionary originality that cuts deep, turn to Jen and Sylvia Soska’s American Mary (XLRator/Screamfest). The writing-directing twin sisters follow their attention-grabbing 2009 debut Dead Hooker In A Trunk with an even more provocative project, starring Ginger Snaps’ Katharine Isabelle as Mary, a broke medical student who tries to pay her tuition by stripping in a mob-run club, but discovers a new line of business when her employers order her to use her nascent surgery skills on one of their wounded colleagues. Word gets out that Mary’s a wizard at off-the-books cut-and-stitch, and soon she has a client base of men and women looking for dramatic body modifications: One wants her sexual organs smoothed out so she’ll better resemble a Barbie doll; a set of twins (played by the Soskas) want to swap arms; and so on. Meanwhile, Mary blows off steam by secretly exacting revenge on a particularly sleazy ex-professor, by keeping him prisoner and performing horrifying experiments on him. Though the subject matter is gruesome, the Soskas suggest more than they show, and with the help of the always-engaging Isabelle, they let the actors’ reactions and the audience’s imagination provide a lot of the special effects.
American Mary can’t sustain its beguiling grotesquerie for its entire running time. The Soskas run out of ideas down the stretch, and resolve Mary’s story in a way that seems pretty mundane, given that this is a movie featuring strippers who look like Betty Boop, and fashionistas who wear backless dresses to show off the black laces they’ve sewn between their scapulas. But until American Mary stumbles toward a blah heroine-gets-stalked climax, the Soskas craft one memorable image after another. From the moment the film opens with Mary in a slip, practicing sutures on an uncooked turkey, American Mary nearly always offers something interesting to look at, even if the action is taking place in the background while the main characters jabber away. The way the Soskas make the ugly beautiful is downright inspiring, especially given that it’s in service of a film about a kind of outsider artist whose creations are only meaningful to the fringe.
Jim Van Bebber’s 2003 docudrama The Manson Family (Severin) mixes some of the adventurous style of avant-garde cinema into an homage to the kind of garish exploitation films that were in drive-ins in the late 1960s and early 1970s—when Charles Manson and his followers were terrorizing Southern California. Van Bebber spent years making music videos for noisy punk and metal bands like Skinny Puppy and Necrophagia, and his Manson Family has some of the same qualities of decay and tactility. The film is structured a little like a TV special, with present-day interviews—all performed by actors—framing re-enactments. That documentary verisimilitude then fractures and bleeds whenever Van Bebber re-creates the Manson family orgies, and the modern cult of Manson-worshippers. Then the movie becomes aggressively psychedelic, combining blood-spattered pagan ceremonies with disturbing sexual perversion. It’s a one-of-a-kind film, and unsettling in a way that slicker horror films rarely are, because just as with experimental films, The Manson Family feels so untethered from convention that it could veer off at any moment to someplace appallingly dark—or at least incredibly disorienting.
The bonus features on Severin’s Manson Family DVD and Blu-ray get into the movie’s tortured history. After nine years in production, a film that was then called Charlie’s Family screened as a work-in-progress at a horror/fantasy film festival, to raise money for completion. It took another six years for Van Bebber to wrap post-production, by which time nearly everyone who’d been involved with the film had moved on with their lives. In new interviews recorded for this special edition, Van Bebber and his cast and crew say this is the kind of movie they could’ve only made in their 20s, when they were still capable of spending endless weekends getting hammered and naked out on a farm, simulating dog sacrifices and strapping on red, white, and blue dildo-masks. The circumstances of The Manson Family’s creation suffuse the film itself, which is about how the enthusiasm and endurance of the young can be easily corrupted, then quickly exhausted.
The Manson Family is a drama about real people, in the form of a documentary; A Labor Of Love (Vinegar Syndrome) is a documentary about the making of The Last Affair, a film in which reality fucked with the fiction. A Labor Of Love was made in 1974 by Robert Flaxman and Daniel Goldman, who were allowed to shoot footage on the set of a pornographic movie being made by a group of Chicago actors and artists who’d been told they could have the money to make an indie drama if 60 percent of it consisted of hardcore sex scenes. Iranian-born director Henri Charbakshi negotiated that down to 20 percent, then talked his crew—all fearless products of The Love Generation—into giving it a go. Flaxman and Goldman were there, primarily recording the tedium that dominates any movie set, even when the action is centered on two naked people engaged in cunnilingus. Flaxman and Goldman then returned to interview the cast, and found out just how petrified they all actually were.
The contrast between the “Hey, we’re all professionals here” on-set attitude and the “Holy crap, what the hell did we just do?” post-mortem is what makes A Labor Of Love so heartbreaking. These people all put themselves in a difficult situation, with many of them having never made a movie of any kind, let alone one in which they had to shrug off a lifetime of Midwestern reserve and get sexy in front of hot lights, noisy cameras, and muttering technicians. A Labor Of Love captures the arc of their depressing little adventure, as they start out talking about wanting to make a solo masturbation scene “really artistic,” then lose their will after the dehumanizing process of having their entire bodies slathered with makeup while an indifferent crew looks on. Many of them admit after the fact to being “uptight,” and seem embarrassed at feeling embarrassed. It’s enough to make any exploitation cinema buff feel more appreciative for what actors and filmmakers go through to get any low-budget movie in the can, let alone one in which they expose so much of themselves.