Friday, February 22, 2019

Rings Of Fear




RINGS OF FEAR aka TRAUMA aka Enigma Rosso (1978)
Dir. Alberto Negrin
Written by (seriously!) Marcello Coscia & Massimo Dallamano & Franco Ferrini & Stefano Ubezio & Alberto Negrin & Peter Berling. All named in the opening credits. IMDB goes on to name Thomas Danneberg (dialogue: German version) and Miguel de Echarri (screenplay). Maybe they didn’t have room on-screen to include them?
Starring Fabio Testi, Christine Kaufmann, Ivan Desny, Jack Taylor, Fausta Avelli

(WARNING: in case the following pullquote doesn’t ring your alarm bells, this is probably one of those reviews you shouldn’t read if you would be the type to get upset about things which it would be completely reasonable to get upset about. Italy, man, what can I say?)


“The pace is brisk and the school shower scene is truly gratuitous.” -- IMDB reviewer HumanoidOfFlesh, Nov 19, 2010.
  
            RINGS OF FEAR starts out by ogling the nude breasts of an underaged corpse. But before you get too judgmental, I have some reassuring news: except for one scene where it blatantly ogles a bunch of 16-year-olds playing together in the showers (the camera reluctantly follows the action of our leading girl as she leaves the showers, and then zips back in for one more peek before it cuts) and one scene where a girl is murdered at an orgy via penetration by a giant dildo… well, other than those scenes and a few others it gets a little classier as it goes on, at least as far these things go! I wasn’t aware of this going in, but apparently RINGS OF FEAR is considered the third film in the loose “schoolgirls in peril!” trilogy which began with WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? and continued with WHAT HAVE THEY DONE WITH YOUR DAUGHTERS?, and would have continued seamlessly here if not for the death of director Massimo Dallamano* (still one of the six credited co-writers). But the dream was too beautiful to die with its author, and so, just as it looked like we might have to live in a dark world with only two sleazy "schoolgirls in peril!" Italian movies from the 70's, in stepped TV director Alberto Negrin (the Secret of the Sahara miniseries starring Michael York, Andie MacDowell, and Ben Kingsley[!]) to offer us one last wild ride with those schoolgirls who, darn it, just can’t seem to stay out of peril.

            The peril these particular schoolgirls have found themselves in began prior to the events of the movie, as our protagonist, Inspector Gianni Di Salvo (Fabio Testi, THE GARDEN OF THE FINZI-CONTINIS, but most known for having a name which literally translates as “Fabulous Testicles”**) discovers when he steps in on a case which concerns a 16-year old schoolgirl. This particular schoolgirl is now thankfully out of peril, as she is currently deceased, having been killed by a giant dong (hey, I warned you!). Her classmates seem to know more than they’re saying, which becomes a real problem for them when they start to get targeted by a mystery avenger operating under the nom de guerre “Nemesis,” who may be a vigilante trying to avenge the dead girl, or the real killer trying to intimidate these co-conspirators into silence. Either way, Di Salvo is on the job, and he knows just what to do: kick his way into the school in the dead of night, rouses everyone from their beds, and shout at everyone incoherently that a girl was murdered and raped with a huge penis. When that somehow fails to produce the desired results, he’s gotta get creative.



            Despite the three “M”s prominently on display,*** this is probably more poliziotteschi than giallo, with a tough-guy cop as the main character, and most of the movie devoted to his hard-nosed attempts at shaking down the local underworld characters for information on this mysterious fiend with the killer johnson. Its style is more gritty than surreal, with a handful of action-packed chase scenes and fights, nearly always shot on-location during the daytime. But it has a few appreciably nutty stalking/suspense sequences too, probably just barely enough to justify describing it as a horror-thriller, if you were inclined to be generous about such things for some reason, such as if you were a person who blogs mostly about horror movies and saw this during October and was consequently honor-bound to write about it, for example.

It is a whodunnit, anyway, and, in fact, one with a batty enough solution to please even the most discerning connoisseurs of psychotic Italian exploitation cinema. (SPOILERS FOLLOW!) It turns out, in fact, to be a double mystery -- “Nemesis” and the dildo murderers are actually unrelated, and Di Salvo has been unknowingly chasing two perps, not one. The whole thing with the dead schoolgirl actually ends up mostly only being a sex conspiracy, not a murder conspiracy; it seems the young woman in question was just an participant in a totally normal and consensual school-wide orgy between underaged classmates and creepy old men, and one of the participants simply miscalculated what size of dildo he could use on her without fatal results. You know how that goes. What a faux pas! Anyway, just a completely understandable misunderstanding; in fact, I’m not even sure the movie ever actually identifies who the responsible party was, it’s much more interested on the subsequent coverup. “Nemesis,” though, turns out to be a little more interesting: it is, in fact, the adorable little sister of the dead girl, resorting to some straight up fucking SAW shit to punish her sisters’ complicit classmates. The movie seems pretty comfortable with her assessment that these terrified 16-year-olds are equally culpable (if not more!) than the adult males who presumably put together this sordid little soiree; so much so that when Di Salvo finally figures it out, he doesn’t even punish this little fucking psycho, and in fact the movie implies that they may team up from here on! Seriously, it ends with an unmistakable "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship" scene! Jesus, this has to be the most depraved, Machiavellian little kid since… well, I DRINK YOUR BLOOD only eight years earlier. What the fuck was up with the 70’s and thinking murderous little tykes were cute? (END SPOILERS)



Anyway, that’s a pretty nutty solution to a pretty nutty mystery, but I must confess, it does basically kind of make sense. Not, like, in the way real things in real life make sense, of course, but in the sense that most of the basic questions posed get answered, and the solutions roughly conform to the basic tenets of the plot up to that point. Frankly six screenwriters (and possibly as many as eight!) adding up to a whodunnit which even vaguely coheres is kind of a miracle in itself, and when you throw 1978 Italy into the mix, we’re basically talking about quantum probability here. Nice work, RINGS OF FEAR. Not that the solution really matters, of course; the real enjoyment of this sort of thing --if you are, like me, the sort of person who has it in them to enjoy this sort of thing, and if you’re not, I sincerely commend you on being a better person than I am-- is in the journey, not the destination. A lot of it is disappointingly down-to-earth, considering the ludicrous premise, but it’s peppered all the way through with funny details. You got a red herring character with a mysterious fake hand, a death by spilled marbles, an interrogation on a real roller coaster which absolutely looks none-too-safe (featuring the venerable Jack Taylor, THE GHOST GALLEON,  something of a Euro-sleaze staple), and one of the most hilariously abrupt suicides of all time. So it’s a pretty good time, especially when it’s rockin’ the jazzy, uptempo title track by Riz Ortolani (DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST), which is as funky and catchy as it is wildly inappropriate. RINGS OF FEAR is by no means essential cinema, even by Italian trash standards, but it is both idiosyncratic and sleazy enough to satisfy the only people on Earth who would ever come across it.  

Which is all, now that I think about it, just a unnecessary longwinded way of saying exactly what we began with: “The pace is brisk and the school shower scene is truly gratuitous.” Next time I’ll let it go at that.

* Dallamano, by the way, directed a handful of giallo and poliziotteschi flicks, but is most known as the cinematographer for A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE. Seriously!

** Warning: translation may not be accurate.

*** Murder, Mystery, and Misogyny

CHAINSAWNUKAH 2018 CHECKLIST!
Searching For Bloody Pictures


TAGLINE
No Girl Can Ever Feel Safe, warns the poster.
TITLE ACCURACY
Yeah, no idea what that means. I think the Italian title is just “Red Mystery,” which also is inaccurate, in fact I’m not sure there’s even any blood in here.
LITERARY ADAPTATION?
Nope
SEQUEL?
None.
REMAKE?
No
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
Italy
HORROR SUB-GENRE
Giallo (sort of), Whodunnit
SLUMMING A-LISTER?
None, although Fabio Testi worked with Vittorio di Sica, which is pretty baller.
BELOVED HORROR ICON?
Yvonne DeCarlo
NUDITY?
Yes, but you’re obligated by law not to enjoy it, so don’t get too excited you creep.
SEXUAL ASSAULT?
Yes.
WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK!
No.
THE UNDEAD?
None
POSSESSION?
No
CREEPY DOLLS?
None
EVIL CULT?
No.
MADNESS?
Nah
TRANSMOGRIFICATION?
None
VOYEURISM?
Just by the camera.
MORAL OF THE STORY
It is entirely possible to have a productive conversation with a murder suspect while also riding a roller coaster, and you should do it.


Wednesday, February 20, 2019

American Gothic



American Gothic (1988)
Dir. John Hough
Written by Burt Wetanson, Michael Vines
Starring Rod Steiger, Yvonne DeCarlo, Sarah Torgov, Janet Wright, Michael J. Pollard, William Hootkins

            AMERICAN GOTHIC has been on my radar for very nearly 20 years now, ever since my first girlfriend back in high school told me that it was the absolute, bottom-of-the-barrel, worst movie ever made, in language so uncharacteristically salty that it stuck with me through the better part of two extremely eventful decades. I have a very clear memory of the VHS box taunting me from its high shelf in the horror section of video store where I worked back then (my recollection is that it was the very first movie in that section, shelved alphabetically; we didn’t have ALICE, SWEET ALICE, and I believe THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES was in the “classics” section, even though it was only 28 years old at the time, younger than AMERICAN GOTHIC is today). At the time I was a budding cinephile with a neophyte’s earnest pretensions for the medium, and, lacking the jaded bemusement which would so endear terrible cinema to me later in life after all meaning and joy had leached from my dessicated soul, I was in no hurry to watch something which was supposed to be so terrible. But even so, I thought I had AMERICAN GOTHIC pretty well pegged. I mean, look at that cheesy box art. This looks like it would be a good companion piece to HEAD OF THE FAMILY or GHOULIES.

            Except, actually not. Because the first two things that happen in the movie demonstrate both why it is very much not in the same vein as those lovable Charles Band joints, and why someone might consider this to be a movie with some serious, perhaps movie-breaking tonal issues. I’ll let wikipedia describe the film’s opening:

“Cynthia [Sarah Torgov, MEATBALLS, in her last peformance before becoming an artist/illustrator] is traumatized by the death of her baby after leaving him in a bathtub, where he accidentally drowned. She and five of her friends, Jeff, Rob, Lynn, Paul and Terri decide to go on a vacation.”

A representative image from this movie called "AMERICAN GOTHIC"

            So right off the bat, we have, 1) holy shit, traumatic baby death, dealt with in a way which very much wants us to understand and take seriously that trauma. Not exactly a fun way to kick off the hacky bodycount slasher which is strongly suggested by the second sentence, which brings us to the more familiar territory of 2) a bunch of disposable white people behaving in an utterly alien manner (‘Cynthia, let’s go on a couples vacation to get your mind off that whole unpleasant business with your dead baby!’) on their way to meet their death in an isolated location. And for better or, --let’s face it-- probably for worse, this is not some kind of embarrassing miscalculation on the movie’s part, this is AMERICAN GOTHIC telling you what it’s all about. And what it’s all about is introducing weird, cartoonish, campy horror movie tropes and then treating them with absolutely dead seriousness that borders on misery porn. It shouldn’t work at all, but it’s so steadfastly committed to its mordant tone that I think it somehow sort of does. Not that it’s the kind of “working” that would necessarily suggest that you or anyone else would enjoy it.

In the cartoonish, campy corner, we find the basic premise: our six vacationing white people get stranded on an isolated island when their plane breaks down, and are surprised to find that the only inhabitants are a family of bizarre, eccentric misfits. “Ma and Pa” (Yvonne DeCarlo, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, SILENT SCREAM, and Rod Steiger, DR. ZHIVAGO) are puritanical religious zealots with three adult offspring (Janet Wright, McCABE AND MRS. MILLER, THE TALL MAN, William “Hoot” Hootkins, STAR WARS, and Michael J. Pollard, BONNIE AND CLYDE, THE ARRIVAL) who all behave like --and appear to believe they are-- prepubescent children. And, uh, not the kind of precocious, perceptive prepubescent children you usually get in movies, more like they smoked an eight-ball of meth and marathoned The Little Rascals and then based their entire personality and demeanor on what they remembered from it.



There is, I think, no denying the silliness of that basic setup. But in the dead serious corner, you have the relatively realistic violence that these nutcases eventually visit on our unsuspecting outsiders, which at some point makes a hard left turn from uncomfortable awkwardness to straight up THE HILLS HAVE EYES sadism. It seems like an insane choice for a premise this loopy, but the movie is absolutely resolute on this point. As absurd as the “kids” are, Steiger and DeCarlo are playing their severe, repressive roles with absolute 100% seriousness, and there’s a grounding realism to the direction which makes the broad, unhinged performances of the “kids” seem unsettling and perverse when it could easily slide into high camp. Most of the victims are not at the same level, and some of their corny hip kid dialogue threatens to sink the whole enterprise early on, but they start dying off pretty quick, and as the direness of their situation sets in it’s increasingly hard to laugh at them. Director John Hough (THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS, THE INCUBUS, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE) seems bound and determined to make this no fun at all, favoring a bleak, hopeless tone matched by the gloomy naturalism of DOP Harvey Harrison (who had just worked with Nicolas Roeg the previous year for a segment of ARIA, and would work with him again in 1990 for THE WITCHES). The craggy woodlands where most of the film takes place are perpetually overcast and full of a wet, sodden sense of decay which feels hostile and wild in the most Hobbesian sense (in fact, it strongly reminds me of another unexpectedly dour wilderness-set slasher, 1983’s THE FINAL TERROR).

The overall effect is a real downer. While creative, none of the kills are very “fun,” and the movie sets its sights on really getting you to understand the depth of these poor victims’ helplessness in the face of these psychotic, self-righteous freaks. This is a task at which is it, against all odds, largely effective; that it is an experience anyone would want to voluntarily subject themselves to is a somewhat different question. Not that it’s exactly wall-to-wall misery porn (though there is at least one incident so shocking it actually elicited gasps from the crowd I viewed it with); it’s just grotesque and miserable, lacking the blind adrenaline rush of THE HILLS HAVE EYES or THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (which it is clearly seeking to emulate) and just resulting in a dismal, hopeless march to the slaughter of characters who are too loosely sketched to care much about, but whose frantic misery is all too clearly articulated.



But again, this is not miscalculation on the movie’s part. It begins with grueling emotional trauma, and grueling emotional trauma is what it’s interested in. This provides no help at all for its anemic bodycount slasher section, but its centrality to the movie suddenly makes sense when it runs out of fresh victims early, leaving time for a thoroughly unexpected final act which changes directions considerably. Despite the unusually sour tone, watching the generic pretty people getting bumped off one by one plays more or less the way you expect of such a thing, which leaves us at around minute 70 with a comfortable assumption that our confirmed “final girl” will rally, confront her tormentors, and manage an unlikely escape. Instead (SPOILERS) she joins them. The trauma of all this is so great that instead of finding a hidden strength and resolve to overcome adversity, Cynthia’s mind simply snaps, and she comes to believe that she is the fourth “child” of the family, dressing in frilly little girl clothes and mimicking the exaggerated childlike affectations of her new “siblings.” You keep assuming it’s an act, that she’s just playing along and waiting for a moment to escape, but no, the old Cynthia really is gone, and not going to return.

(SPOILERS continue) But turnabout’s fair play. Just as “Ma” and “Pa” have honed their other “children” -- who we now learn are victims of the same brainwashing scheme which has now ensnared Cynthia-- into psychotic killers, the now-deranged Cynthia turns out to pose quite a bit of danger to the very people who made her what she has become. The sight of a desiccated baby corpse that Janet Wright is using as a dolly (!) stirs memories of her own dead child. In another movie, this flash of insight might restore her to sanity, but not here. Instead, it churns up her already fragile mental state into something primal and destructive. In short, it transformers her into a Jason-like slasher in her own right, and she wastes no time in butchering her entire adopted “Family” in a pleasingly sadistic manner. Not out of revenge, or desire to escape, but out of pure psychotic frenzy. Hey, you break it, you bought it, you fuck-o's. Cynthia’s tragic past as a baby-drowner is so over-the-top it threatens to get a laugh for much of the film (though actress Torgov is actually quite excellent in the role), but I like that it turns out to be the key to getting her to hulk out and murder everyone at the end. “Worth it” might be going a little far, but “helps redeem what was probably always a bad idea” comes closer.



Now, I’m not really sure what the point of it all is, which is kinda a problem for something this mean, especially when you posit the villains as ultra-religious conservatives haranguing about the debased outside world and all that, and especially especially when your movie is fucking called AMERICAN GOTHIC, for heaven’s sake. It seems like it’s supposed to be some kind of send-up of backwards, evangelical American repression, but the stuff that happens is so crazy and over-the-top that it’s hard to imagine what it’s getting at beyond “wow, conservative religious nutcases sure are scary, huh?” But I do like the implication that this iteration of the TEXAS CHAINSAW family isn’t trying to eat you, it’s trying to terrify and harass you until it breaks you and can subsume you. And in doing so, might turn you into something even worse. It’s interesting that whatever their faults, “Ma” and “Pa” are certainly not hypocrites; they’re true believers, and the film even ends with (SPOILERS) Steiger --upon arriving home to find his family butchered-- raging at God for betraying him after he did everything he was supposed to, which both the film and the actor treat with 100% sincerity and commitment.

Sincerity and commitment AMERICAN GOTHIC has; whether that’s enough to make it worthwhile is a pretty open question. On one hand, I have to admit, it says something that it affected me enough to provoke a reaction. On the other hand, that reaction was “well, this certainly is unpleasant.” So maybe my old girlfriend kind of had a point. Like all the John Hough films I’ve watched so far (including THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS, THE INCUBUS, TWINS OF EVIL and THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE) this one is competently assembled and deliberately paced, but also like all of those, it seems absolutely bound and determined to take a ridiculous premise and ensure it’s no fun at all. It’s not exactly boring, but it’s nowhere near exuberant enough to just get by as a meat-and-potatoes slasher. It has a great cast and some genuinely committed, effective performances, but it’s nowhere near interesting enough for that to do it any good. Fundamentally, it seems like a movie that doesn’t quite understand the reason for its own existence. Writers Burt Wetanson and Michael Vines have no other significant writing credits, and one is certainly tempted to imagine that they simply watched THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE make a bunch of money and figured “sure, I could write something like that.” Like so many other hucksters who were similarly disabused of that notion after their ill-conceived attempt at a ripoff crashed and burned (the miserable ISLAND OF DEATH comes to mind), they seem to have assumed the success of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE was due to its sadism and depravity within a family dynamic, instead of its masterful sense of nightmarish intensity. Without that intensity, the sadism and depravity are lifeless objects on-screen, rousing disgust, perhaps, but never much more

Still, gotta give ol’ AMERICAN GOTHIC a little credit for being so fucking crazy hardcore when I assumed it was gonna be a straightforward genre lark. At one point they (SPOILER) rip a baby carcass in half while fighting over it. God damn, honkie. It’s not really very good, but at this point in my death march of horror movies, I’ll settle for “unexpected.”

Side note: Actor Mark Lindsey Chapman (who plays Rob, and, holy cow, was in TITANIC!) once played John Lennon in a biopic of Mark David Chapman called CHAPTER 27. What the everlovin' fuckity-fuck?



CHAINSAWNUKAH 2018 CHECKLIST!
Searching For Bloody Pictures
  
TAGLINE
The Family That Slays together… stays together. Which is solid Horror taglineing at its finest, except that it absolutely does not accurately describe the tone of the movie at all.
TITLE ACCURACY
Meh. They don’t even mention the famous Grant Wood painting, which appears only in the VHS box art.
LITERARY ADAPTATION?
Nope
SEQUEL?
None.
REMAKE?
No
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
IMDB says UK/Canada. It definitely seems to have been filmed in Canada.
HORROR SUB-GENRE
Slasher, TCSM rip-off, “Evil Town”
SLUMMING A-LISTER?
Rod Steiger, Yvonne DeCarlo
BELOVED HORROR ICON?
Yvonne DeCarlo
NUDITY?
None
SEXUAL ASSAULT?
Yes.
WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK!
No.
THE UNDEAD?
None
POSSESSION?
No
CREEPY DOLLS?
Oh hell yes.
EVIL CULT?
Well, technically these people are subscribers to one of the world’s major religions, but definitely of a sect which could be called cultish.
MADNESS?
Oh, certainly
TRANSMOGRIFICATION?
None
VOYEURISM?
Some spying-on
MORAL OF THE STORY
If you suspect God would like you to butcher a bunch of vacationing teenagers, maybe switch to the New Testament for a little bit. (But not Revelations, and I’d stay away from Paul too, now that I think about it.)



Here, I figure you probably deserve a picture of Michael J. Pollard for your troubles.


Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Dr. Giggles




Dr. Giggles (1992)
Dir. Manny Coto
Written by Manny Coto and Graeme Whifler
Starring Larry Drake, Holly Marie Combs, Cliff deYoung, Glenn Quinn

            DR. GIGGLES is an absolutely immaculate, textbook-perfect specimen of the subspecies of horror known as the “gimmick slasher,” with only one fatal flaw: it premiered in 1992. That was way too late to present the world with a premise that should, by all rights, have shown up in 1986 along with NEON MANIACS, THE WRAITH, MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, and FRIDAY THE 13th PART VI.* That would be the right cultural moment for a by-the-book slasher which posits its entire reason for existence on medical-themed one-liners.

1992 was emphatically not the right time. The Great American Slasher Wave which had subsumed the horror genre throughout the 80s following the success of HALLOWEEN in 1978 was by that time well and truly over, killed off by a mix of oversaturation and increasingly draconian censorship (witness the milquetoast TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 3’s tortured attempt to secure an R rating, where its 1974 predecessor had landed a PG), and SCREAM’s bid to reboot the genre with smug self-referential irony was still four long years away. The landscape had shifted right underneath the slasher’s feet, and even more than that, the artform of filmmaking had changed. As we discussed in fellow 90’s refugee slasher THE NIGHT BRINGS CHARLIE, the 90’s brought with them an epidemic of overlit, drab realism that abandoned the appealingly ridiculously artificial aesthetic of the 80s, where the genre had flourished for a decade. This was a disaster for the genre; atmosphere mostly went out the window with the new visual style, and anything even remotely approximating naturalism was a miserably uncomfortable fit for the kind of cheerfully airheaded premise that underpins any gimmick slasher worth its salt. Acting had changed too; gone were the unselfconsciously broad stereotypes and enthusiastically bizarre line readings which had so charmed us during the heady 80’s; by 1992, heroin chic had replaced the cocaine effusiveness of the previous decade, and the square preppies and multiracial biker punks gave way to wan pretty boys with perpetually manicured five-o’clock shadows to communicate their inner torment at having to deal with your fascist reality, man.

Also, we wore a lot of denim. Possibly too much.

You could still throw a masked killer at a handful of pretty co-eds, of course, and some filmmakers did. The slasher didn’t completely die off right away, it just gradually got self-conscious and mopey and corporate. It devolved from the high absurdism of NEON MANIACS and HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME to the unambitious likes of I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER or URBAN LEGEND: slick, responsible slashers made by slick, responsible people who were going to deliver the expected product on time and under budget, and stay well away from anything that might surprise or upset anyone. These were, in other words, slashers made by people self-aware enough to understand the concept of shame, who consequently thought before they acted in the hopes of avoiding embarrassment. Some chose to embrace the genre’s inherent corniness and play into the joke (SCREAM, LEPRECHAUN, BRIDE OF CHUCKY) while others went the opposite route into the kind of self-serious grimness that would eventually give us the torture-porn cycle a decade later (STRANGELAND, RAVENOUS, MUTE WITNESS). Neither school was necessarily a dead end; BRIDE OF CHUCKY is indisputably charming, and something like CANDYMAN (arising from the latter school) is close to a masterpiece. But neither embodied the spirit of the slasher as it had existed in its heyday. For better or worse, the days of the naive, unselfconscious indie slasher flick was truly over.

Except, not quite, because here we find DR. GIGGLES existing categorically within its 1992 mileu, but with at least a toe still firmly planted in the cheerfully moronic splatter pics of yesteryear. On the surface, it’s all 90s: glossy, clean-looking images populated by generically pretty white people and their one black friend (Doug E. Doug, JUNGLE FEVER, COOL RUNNINGS) who will say something wacky and then quickly die, all acting in some kind of miserable limbo which is certainly not good but also a long way from the endearing, energetic corniness of their predecessors from a decade earlier. It’s also frustratingly short on explicit gore, and to my recollection utterly devoid of nudity. And it is certainly self-aware enough to realize that its premise is campy enough to make John Waters blush; IMDB even lists it as a “comedy” (along with “horror” and the far-less defensible “drama”).

You'll never guess what the cops say to Dr. Giggles to elicit this hilarious reaction.

 And yet, while the look and construction of the movie are resolutely bound to the decade of its birth, there’s a certain stubborn straightforwardness which is all 80s in the best possible way. What, you think the makers of JASON TAKES MANHATTAN were unaware that the series had escalated to well beyond the point of self-parody? They knew. They just didn’t feel the need to point it out to the audience, which they correctly assumed would come to that conclusion on its own, well before Wes Craven provided the cheat sheet for it. DR. GIGGLES knows the joke is funnier if it doesn’t have to be explained. So it just gets out there and presents its ridiculous premise without pretension and without comment, and you’re free to do with that what you’d like. The end credits play over Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor) which should at least retroactively tell you definitively that the filmmakers get it, if nothing else did.**

But get out there it certainly does; whatever else it may be, it is not the kind of movie to dissemble around before getting to the point. Said ridiculous premise arrives right away, immediately, in fact. A medical-themed gimmick slasher it has set its mind to be, and a medical-themed gimmick slasher it will be from frame one: It opens with a stentorian quote from Hippocrates, followed by a an extensive credit sequence of CGI blood cells zipping around veins and eventually through the heart. In fact, we will actually enter the movie from the inside of the body, as a scalpel opens the vessels we’ve been so comfortably occupying, and we peer outside into the placid, psychotic face of the title character (Larry Drake, “Yahoo #1” in THE KARATE KID and Durant in DARKMAN, but apparently best known L.A. Law).

We’re quickly treated to the requisite backstory: It seems that one Dr. Evan Rendell, once a respected medical practitioner in the sleepy town of Moorehigh, Middle America (heheh), lost his mind in the 50’s and started stealing patients’ hearts in an ill-conceived attempt to revive his ailing (read: deceased) wife. Rendell was killed to death by an angry mob, but, we’re told, his unstable young son and accomplice, Evan Jr, vanished and was never apprehended. Or, uh, I guess he actually was apprehended at some later point, because we’re going to begin the movie proper with his escape from a mental institution, Michael-Myers-style, and we will follow his progress as he makes a beeline back to his hometown to pick up where his late father left off.



This is all great news, because Drake is perfect as the mad doctor who more than earns his titular nickname (well, the giggling part, at least; he does not graduate medical school during the course of the movie [spoiler]), giving the character a magnificent mixture of broad comic strangeness and genuine malice. A good slasher is going to live or die on the strength of its antagonist, and without a iconic mask or signature weapon to hide behind, it’s entirely up to Drake’s performance to create a memorable villain. Fortunately, he more than rises to the challenge. On this point I must defer to the words of my colleague Mr. Majestyk, who sums it up so perfectly that I consider his take definitive: 

Every single word of dialogue he speaks is a medical-themed one-liner ("I'm not really seeing patients yet, but for you, I'll make an exception," "Visiting hours are over," "Open up and say ah," etc.) but somehow, they all seem to come from within the character. They don't make him seem like a slumming character actor; they make him seem like a total fucking nutcase who has his own separate reality running in his head at all times. His fa├žade never breaks down. He never gets angry or threatens to rip somebody's lungs out. He maintains his bedside manner and soft-spoken bemusement at all times, even when he's chasing somebody around with a hypodermic needle or fencing with one of those rubber hammers they use to test reflexes. But at the same time, there's an undercurrent of gleeful sadism bubbling just below the surface, as if, deep down, he knows this doctor persona he's concocted is all for show.

            Drake, then, is perfect, but you will perhaps not be surprised to hear that his victims will be of a decidedly less enchanting stratum. Our protagonist (Holly Marie Combs, Charmed, “cameo” in OCEAN’S 11?), for example, is a real bummer, spending most of her time before becoming a victim throwing temper tantrums at her dad for dating again following her mom’s death, and moping over her own impending heart operation. In my untrained medical opinion, she doesn’t really help matters in the latter regard by throwing her heart monitor into a fish tank and drinking a bottle of wine against her doctor's instructions (her real doctor, the non-giggling kind). The movie seems to think her stepmom is a monster for daring to suggest that maybe she’s being a bit of a drama queen, but man, the evidence sure seems to back her up. Granted, everybody was like this all the time in the 90’s, we were all insufferable crybabies, that was just what cool people did back then, for whatever reason, and I swear to you it seemed very chic at the time. Her boyfriend (Glenn Quinn, Roseanne, Angel), on the other hand, listens to this tormented soul pour her heart out to him about her anxiety over her serious medical condition and how it relates to her mom’s untimely death just a short time ago, and then hooks up with another chick almost immediately after he’s out of her sight, unable to resist the lure of a sexy saxophone lesson at a party in the school music room at the county fair (?). And he’s the hero! These kids really deserve each other. But at least you’re not going to be too torn up about watching them get killed off.



            In fact, while both the leads are unappealing deadwood of Brobdingnagian proportions, they’re nowhere near the worst offender here. That honor goes to this other dude (Darin Heames, PCU), and we need to discuss his journey. We first encounter him hilariously (?) trapping two friends in an abandoned house with no means of escape and never going back for them (and yes, they’re the movie’s only two black people), but his real moment to shine arrives later. Still basking in the afterglow of this urbanely puckish jape, this prince of a man prepares to draw another productive day to a conclusion by fucking his girlfriend (probably Deborah Tucker, DON’T TELL MOM THE BABYSITTER’S DEAD) in his parents’ bed. No one seems to think it is at all weird when he asks his consort to dress in his mom’s lingerie (which, uh, fits her), and everything seems to be going smoothly until his date offers him a condom and he looks confused and asks “where did you get that?” as if it’s some kind of mysterious alien artifact. Once he’s acquainted himself with the concept, he then immediately runs to the bathroom to apply it (even though they haven’t so much as kissed yet!) as though this is going to be some kind of elaborate operation which will require his full concentration. And then when he finally hops in bed to make use of the condom in question (which, in point of fact, he has somehow failed to correctly apply and has now lost, speculating “maybe she won’t notice?” like a real gentleman), he takes his shirt off and puts his baseball cap back on. What I’m saying is, this has to be one of the most deserved deaths in all of slasherdom.***
           
Predictably, as our heroine is being stalked by a murderous psychopath leaving a trail of bodies, no authority figure is even remotely interested in following up with her, nor does anyone seem interested in the fact that, for example, there’s a murdered body with a giant band-aid over the face stuck back there in the hall of mirrors, which both Girl and Boyfriend saw, and Giggles has made no effort to hide. And also, a veteran cop (Richard Bradford, THE UNTOUCHABLES) knows Giggles is loose, tells the whole story about his escape, and then just tells his partner (Keith Diamond, AWAKENINGS) not to worry about it. Wha? “This sure is a fucked-up town” the partner says. Yeah, no kidding. How bout we do worry about it?

            The cops’ laissez-faire attitude towards escaped maniacs turns out to be a less than ideal approach to public safety, as Giggles methodically euthanizes his way through the local teenage population one by one. Other than Drake, everybody is giving exactly the kind of bland, mopey performance you’d expect, so there’s not exactly a ton of tense drama here, but at least he starts to kill them off in a studiously on-theme manner almost immediately, and does so consistently throughout the film’s comfortable 96 minutes. There’s actually a pretty impressively high body count, a good number of them real showstopper gimmick kills (personal favorite: strangling a guy with a blood-pressure arm band monitor) and he’s got a medical themed one-liner for allllllllll of them.**** The movie is very invested in its solid gimmicky kills, of which it boasts an ample supply... but unfortunately not so much in matching them with over-the-top gore. I very much appreciate a movie that knows there should be a scene here Dr. Giggles takes someone’s temperature with a long, pointy thermometer and then rams it through her head, but why aren’t we allowed to actually see it? It kinda diminishes the impact of some of his more colorful ideas. Director Manny Coto (STAR KID and a busy TV writing career) claimed on the Killer POV podcast that the MPAA demanded most of the hoped-for gore be cut in order to secure that precious R rating, which sounds sadly feasible, but come on dude, have the artistic integrity to just release it unrated (hopefully the assumed Criterion director’s cut will add the gore back in and fulfill DR. GIGGLES’ true destiny to ascend to the highest echelons of schlocky gimmick slashers).



            If it is gore you seek, then, DR. GIGGLES will be able to meet your requirements only at the most modest levels. Fortunately, it makes up for it by being generally colorful and silly enough to at least distract you from the distressingly low volume of on-screen bloodletting. And it’s not just the humans who are willing to go boldly into near-surreal strangeness. Despite the unappealing 90s aesthetic, we have all kinds of fun visuals in there; a POV shot from inside a mouth, with Dr. Giggles peering in holding a tongue depressor, a near-psychedelic house of mirror sequence (that serves no real purpose, but why not have an Orson Welles homage in DR. GIGGLES?), even some cartoon lightning electricity and a backlit smokey forest scene lit by inexplicably sourced blue light to remind us of how much better this would have looked in 1986. The obvious standout is a flashback sequence which reveals how a young Giggles managed to escape the mob that killed his father by (SPOILERS) hiding in his mom’s hollowed-out corpse and carving his way out just in time to give an unlucky coroner a memorable night on the job. (END SPOILERS) It’s the kind of thing that takes a subtler sense of tone than you might be willing to give DR GIGGLES credit for: genuinely kind of shocking and perverse, but also outrageous enough to keep with the straight-faced silly tone of the movie. Same with Giggles’ skin-crawling but also kind of funny insistence on giggling through the pain of a gunshot. There’s a subtle kind of power generated by the confidence it takes to never outright admit this is comedy; like Dr. Giggles himself, the movie is at no time not crazy, but it is so unshakable in its insistence to the contrary that every now and then, it’s actually able to successfully become the legit horror-slasher it’s been pretending to be.

            To wit: Giggles has apparently learned surgery well enough to successfully remove a bullet and close a wound on himself (“Physician, heal thyself,” he says), which is no joke considering he’s spent his whole adult life in a madhouse. Really, this is a pretty inspiring story of triumph over adversity. Frankly, when he straps the protagonist down in his secret lair to replace her heart, I was thinking this actually might not be such a bad idea, as long as he accepts her insurance (alas, we never get a chance to find out). In retrospect, that probably was not such a feasible outcome, but both movies and people try and tell you what they are, and the two DR. GIGGLES --both the movie and the character-- are confident enough in what they are that even when you know better, it’s hard not to occasionally be suckered into going along with them. The place they’re going is an extremely silly one, but not an altogether unpleasant one for those who would be open to this kind of thing. Could use some more prurient thrills, but we can’t have everything. Even if the gimmick slasher sub-genre was on life support by 1992, DR. GIGGLES is good evidence that it wasn’t time to pull the plug quite yet.



            Also, in a completely unrelated note, kudus to Washington Post film critic Richard Harrington for blasting the film’s over-reliance on medical puns, only to indulge in the exact same vice with equally groan-worthy results. Look, I’m not made of stone either, OK? But at least I had the integrity to admit I like the puns.

POSSIBLY IRRELEVANT POST-SCRIPT:

My notes on the film contain the cryptic phrase, “Nire if rgarm okease” following the discussion of the house of mirrors sequence. Usually I can decipher my drunken initial reactions upon later review, but not this time. Hopefully that wasn’t the key to cracking this whole movie wide open, but if it was, and you can figure out what the hell I was trying to say, let me know.

POSSIBLY IRRELEVANT IMDB TRIVIA:
 


* I never really thought about this before, but isn’t it weird that the FRIDAY THE 13ths all use "Part" instead of just a number, suggesting they're all part of one vast, rambling saga that spans centuries? 
** In fact, it is not the familiar 1978 Robert Palmer recording, but a new version by Bad Company frontman Paul Rodgers.    

*** In fact, while the camera doesn’t linger on the fact, the blood evidence strongly suggests that Dr. Giggles has taken the precaution of removing this dude’s dick, which I’m sure is a real loss for the ladies of the world.

**** In fact, even the heroine gets in on the act at the end (spoilers): “take two and call me in the morning” she says, plunging two huge knives into her nemesis. Not to be outdone, Giggles turns, looks directly into the camera, and deadpans “Is there a doctor in the house?” before expiring.





Actually, "Major" motion picture might be stretching it.


CHAINSAWNUKAH 2018 CHECKLIST!
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TAGLINE
If you're from Moorehigh
and you get sick
fall on your knees and pray
you die quick.

The slightly annoying formatting which insists “and pray” should be in the third line instead of the fourth, smashing the natural poetic meter to hopeless ruin, is, of course, what appears on the poster.

Also: The Doctor Is Out… Of His Mind.

And the somewhat more labored derivative:

Sorry, The Doctor Is In...Sane.
TITLE ACCURACY
100% accurate.
LITERARY ADAPTATION?
Nope
SEQUEL?
None. The 90’s was a pretty bleak time for horror sequels, compared to other decades.
REMAKE?
No
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
USA
HORROR SUB-GENRE
Slasher, Gimmick Slasher
SLUMMING A-LISTER?
None.
BELOVED HORROR ICON?
None
NUDITY?
The only boobs are on the corpse that Giggles slices out of.
SEXUAL ASSAULT?
None
WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK!
No.
GHOST/ ZOMBIE / HAUNTED BUILDING?
None
POSSESSION?
No
CREEPY DOLLS?
None
EVIL CULT?
None
MADNESS?
Oh, certainly
TRANSMOGRIFICATION?
None
VOYEURISM?
None
MORAL OF THE STORY
Even if you name your fictional town “Moorehigh,” some people still won’t get that you’re joking, and you just have to be OK with that and make great art anyway.