NOVEMBER 22, 2012
Since he's just as much of a horror encyclopedia as I am when it comes to this shit, I believed Eli Roth when he said that there were no Thanksgiving based slasher movies, which is why he planned to make his own (I believe we can officially give up hope on that one though; it's been over 5 years and no progress whatsoever has been made). However a couple years ago I found out about Home Sweet Home, and now there's Blood Rage (aka Nightmare At Shadow Woods, which limits its Thanksgiving setting to a conversation or two, but still counts.
It's also better than Home Sweet Home on just about every level (except for holiday mentions). The killer is equally bland looking - no costume, normal clothes, but he has an identity and a motive (of sorts), which puts him above the admittedly amusing but completely lazy "Killer" from that film. Our guy here is Terry, a young man with a twin brother named Todd, who has been locked up in a mental institution for a murder that Terry committed when they were like 8 years old. One night (Thanksgiving!) Todd escapes from the institute, and when word reaches the family home, Terry sees an opportunity to go on a killing spree, partially egged on by the news that his mother is planning to remarry (there's definitely a bit of an Oedipal thing going on here, but it's not as explicit as, say, Night Warning). Todd can be blamed for everything, he can get his mother to himself again, and we in the audience get to enjoy a lot of skin and dead idiots - everyone wins! Except Todd.
Director John Grissmer and writer Bruce "Not that one" Rubin keep things moving, to the extent that I thought this was going to be like the Friday the 13th or My Bloody Valentine remakes, with an extended epilogue before the real movie began. As soon as he hears about Todd's escape, Terry kills the would-be step-dad and two institute employees (including Todd's shrink) that came to deliver the news, leaving pretty much just Mom. But luckily, all of Terry's pals that we saw earlier in the day - one of whom actually kind of resembles Roth - come back into the picture, and he can keep on killing until Todd actually shows up (it would have been funny if Todd opted to return to the hospital 20 minutes later and left Terry unable to explain how he could have killed everyone). Thus, the body count is more than sufficient, and I enjoy that Terry has a Voorheesian opposition to sex, killing most people during sex or some sort of romantic encounter. One such bit is incredible enough to rewind (on a 25 year old VHS tape being played on a 20 year old VCR, this is dangerous territory); two of the teens are making rather tender love on a diving board, with the male lightly kissing his lover's lips in a very sweet way. Then we hear Terry casually say "Hey, stop that!" like one would scold a furniture scratching cat, and then Grismmer cuts to a wide shot just in time to see Terry nearly take the guy's head off with his machete and then throw him into the pool.
That one's rather tame, but another great thing about the flick is that it has a lot of solid, un-tampered with by the MPAA gore effects courtesy of future Oscar nominee Ed French. The first kill has some sliced fingers, the stepdad loses his hand (and then squirts blood everywhere, total The Hand style), and the shrink gets cut in half! They did the "bury them up to their waist" trick, but it works well, as she's still stuttering around with her legs 5 feet away and blood pouring out on both sides. And later, the distraught Todd finds her and sort of puts her legs back in place, akin to when someone closes a person's eyelids after they've perished. Bliss.
This scene is followed by a terrific little subplot that just works perfectly. A little girl comes around looking for her cat, and Todd tells her to go home and lock herself in, and not answer the door for anyone because a bad person is around - in other words letting us know for sure that he's not out to harm anyone. But it has an extra little payoff; later, during the Final Girl chase, she's shouting for help and knocks on that girl's door, who honors Todd's wishes and refuses to open the door to help her. It's the sort of callback that you never see in these types of movies, and one of several things that elevated it a notch or two above the typical 80s slasher for me.
I was also impressed by the performance of Mark Soper as both brothers (the child versions are played by actual twins, or the best split-screen FX work ever seen in 1983). He does a fine job of making them distinct personalities, and admirably manages to make Todd sympathetic with his limited screentime. And his portrayal of Terry is wonderfully laid-back; his explanation to the step-dad about Todd's escape is one for the ages, casually remarking "Looks like you're going to meet the whole family - my psychotic brother just escaped." I also loved his repeated references to cranberry sauce when he sees blood on his own weapons. "That is not cranberry sauce, Artie. That is NOT cranberry sauce!" would be something people say as often as "Garbage Day!" if this movie (oddly enough, released just a few weeks after Silent Night Deadly Night 2) ever had a proper release. It was made in 1983 but released theatrically in June of 1987, under the Shadow Woods title, and edited to boot. This VHS release of Blood Rage is the only one that has the gore; the film was briefly available on DVD, but it was the cut one. Thus, you can kind of see why Eli has never heard of it.
And that's a shame, because I really did dig the movie. I figured it would mostly be a "so bad it's good" type affair like SNDN 2 (and 1, if I'm being honest), but apart from a few clunky moments (like the bizarre voiceover during the shrink scene) it's a pretty solid slasher of that era, with an appreciable mix of crass moments and characters (like the floozy neighbor who encourages her BABYSITTER to help herself to the alcohol stash) and genuine slasher terror, with some fine gore FX and a surprisingly grim ending to sweeten the deal. So it certainly doesn't deserve to be so obscure - did I mention Ted Raimi plays a condom salesman who acts like he's selling drugs? A young Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland) is in there too, apparently, but I didn't see him and I don't want to stress my VCR out by using it twice in 24 hrs by looking for him. Incidentally, the last time I used it, I think, was for its fellow obscure holiday slasher To All A Goodnight - I need to make sure it stays healthy for the next one to come my way.
What say you?
P.S. Big thanks to my buddy Jackson for lending me his copy so I could have a rare holiday appropriate HMAD viewing! Also: yay! This will be the last time I have to eschew my old tradition of watching Dawn of the Dead on Thanksgiving morning so I would have time for a new HMAD entry!