Thursday, October 9, 2014

Welcome To Spring Break (and the Mystery of Harry Kirkpatrick)

Welcome to Spring Break (1988) aka Nightmare Beach
Dir by Harry Kirkpatrick (?) and an uncredited Umberto Lenzi
Written by Harry Kirkpatrick, Vittorio Rambaldi, and Umberto Lenzi
Starring Nicolas de Toth, Sarah Buxton, John Saxon, Michael Parks, Lance LeGault

WELCOME TO SPRING BREAK is the terrifying title of a story which presents us with that most classic of all screen conflicts: gimmicky slashers and drunk college coeds. A time-worn classic certainly, but hey, no need to reinvent the wheel if you’ve found something that works. The particulars in this case are fairly trivial: You’ve got some podunk beach town overrun by drunken frat boys and the scantily clad sorority chicks that… well, not love them, that might be a little strong. I guess maybe find them vaguely less repulsive than normal people would. Our instantly forgettable hero is Skip Banacheck (Nicolas de Toth, presumably their original preferred name Skip Bananahammock had copyright issues or something), who we learn recently blew the big football game. This fact keeps coming up again and again, and it really makes you assume he’s gonna have to kill the baddie by throwing a football at him or something, but no dice, it never ends up being relevant. Just the kind of subtle character detail that’s so important to a movie with a title like WELCOME TO SPRING BREAK, I guess.

But all is not well in Springbreaksville. Dark clouds are on the horizon, in the form of the exhaust from a nasty band of bikers* pissed off that their leader has just been executed in some sort of weird, vaguely defined conspiracy between the town’s alcoholic doctor (Michael Parks, trying way, way harder than is necessary here) shifty sheriff (John Saxon, trying the exact minimum amount necessary here) fire-and-brimstone preacher (Lance LeGault** …trying?) and smarmy Mayor (...not sure if he’s trying or not, I’m not 100% sure who he is. I think Ben Stotes, although it’s hard to be sure since the credits just list him as “Al” and I think it’s a bit ridiculous to imagine we’ll remember the mayor’s first name by the end of this, anyway he’s in the Lezni-scripted Vittorio Rambaldi-directed vampire flick PRIMAL RAGE, so good for him). Point is, bikers are pissed and there’s been some sort of shady doings, but the spring breakers just want to party. So when teens start getting bumped off, everyone immediately jumps to the same entirely logical conclusion: the head biker is back from the dead, and he’s getting revenge, I guess, on random drunken teens (?). Admittedly this theory is lent some credence by the fact that we see a devilish mystery biker using generally motorcycle-and-electric-chair themed gimmickry to murder, but they had no way of knowing that, only our omniscient moviegoer eyes can see this.

Murderous, sure, but at least he's a role model for motorcycle safety gear.

It’s pretty rad, though, at least at first: he picks up a hitchhiker, who gets into the motorcycle’s backseat only to find that…. it’s been turned into an electric chair!!!! That has to be quite a shock bwa hahahahahahaaha. Anyway, that’s a good one, unfortunately they get weaker from there.

A lot of this movie is taken up by weird, obsessive repetition of the same scenes over and over. There’s three or four stereotype characters who keep doing the exact same specific thing in slightly different circumstances. You got this pickpocket thief guy who keeps stealin’ shit, this prostitute who’s working her way though a wide variety of different schools, this dipshit who keeps faking his own death and then complaining that no one has a sense of humor about it, I think maybe one or two others. Each time, the scenario is played out almost identically with mild circumstantial differences. Is this some sort of existential horror about the cyclic nature of existence and the inevitability of our own failings? Or did they just  realize they only had enough plot to fill 50 minutes and had to go back and add some filler? Obviously, these are questions that film scholars have debated for years, I’m sure the Criterion release will have a whole second disk dedicated to the rich academic discourse WELCOME TO SPRING BREAK has produced. You owe it to yourself to see this and make up your own mind.

I'm honestly not 100% sure if this image is actually from this particular movie or one of the countless others which looks exactly identical to it, not that it especially matters.

The other thing that academics have discussed about this movie is who actually made it. Normally that’s the kind of thing you just count on knowing, but such is the mystery of WELCOME TO SPRING BREAK. Here the movie is credited to a mysterious man named Harry Kirkpatrick, long assumed by the public to actually be NIGHTMARE CITY’s Umberto Lenzi in disguise. Many Italians trying to make money in American cinemas changed their names in a ridiculous attempt to make Americans think they were one of us, as if all the insanity and rape and shit wouldn’t be an immediate tip-off. There is no IMDB listing for Harry Kirkpatrick outside of this film, and an exhaustive internet search finds no other evidence of anyone actually named Harry Kirkpatrick who could conceivably be related to the filming of this movie. Seems pretty cut-and-dried, right? 

But wait, an uncited, uncredited wikipedia article (EDIT 3/26/2015: now credited and cited by me) claims that Lenzi has stated in interviews that there really was a Harry Kirkpatrick. What could this mean? Well, an IMDB search reveals only three people who share that pseudonym. One is Alec Baldwin, but he did five movies in 1988 so that wouldn’t leave him a whole lot of time to direct this one. He’s out. The second is Lenzi himself, who usually used some variation on the name Hubert Humphrey when was was working undercover (including Humphrey Humbert, Humphrey Milestone, Humphrey Longan and Hank Milestone). This one is the only movie he has credited under the name “Harry Kirkpatrick,” but the evidence for it still seems strong. But wait, there is one other person on IMDB with that nom de plum: the porn-tastically named James Justice, screenwriter for a TV movie in 2006 starring Clint Eastwood’s daughter and… my God, WELCOME TO SPRING BREAK! During which he also used the pseudonym Harry Kirkpatrick. He’s got an IMDB page and a photo, so even if that’s not his real name I’m going to assume he’s a real person.

Based on the admittedly flimsy circumstantial evidence here, I have a theory as to what happened: Lenzi was originally hired to be the director on this one, but quickly ran into problems with his American producers and left the directing job (multiple sources online, though no primary sources on the movie, confirm this). However, the movie needed to be finished quickly, and so screenwriter James Justice, who had collaborated with Lenzi on the script, took over to finish directing. Having no experience in that regard, though, he asked Lenzi to remain on-set as a consultant, essentially serving as director in a non-official role so as not to run afoul of the irate producers. “Harry Kirkpatrick,” then, is actually two people, Justice and Lenzi co-directing, presumably with Lenzi really calling the shots. Admittedly this case is built largely on hearsay, but if you’ve got a better theory I’d love to hear it. So the legend goes. EDIT 3/26/2015: an interview with Lenzi in 1996's Spaghetti Nightmares confirms that there really is a Harry Kirkpatrick (still can't say with 100% certainty that his real name is James Justice, though this maddeningly vague interview with the real James Justice seems highly suggestive) but Lenzi claims he was a "technical advisor" on the film only, and that "WELCOME TO SPRING BREAK should be considered the work of Harry Kirkpatrick, a very pleasant screenwriter who lives in Flordia and with whom I got along very well."

If you asked John Saxon today if he was in this movie, I'm 90% sure he would have to check his own IMDB.

Anyway, enough about that asshole Kirkpatrick. I can see why no one was clamboring to take credit for directing, this isn’t really a very good movie to be perfectly honest with you. Though there are no fewer than five gawking wet T-shirt sequences, the movie is depressingly low on actual horror. No atmosphere, only a handful of kills, most not especially imaginative.  Really, the movie is something like 70% teen romp and 30% slasher, neither very good. Michael Parks gives something resembling a real performance as a pointless doctor character, and it’s always fun to see John Saxon coasting, but, and this may surprise you, most of the acting is not very good, at least from a technical standpoint (there’s one female biker character who I swear is just reading her lines phonetically) and the characters are all dull whitebread weenies. Carlo Siminetti from Goblin did the score, but I’m pretty sure he only recorded 4 minutes of music for the film, and that same 4 minutes plays over and over for much of the runtime (sometimes with screaming metal guitar sounds synthesized over it, sometimes not). I guess you know what you’re in for when the DVD menu screen has clips from the movie playing on it, but then when you start the movie you realize the menu screen just plays the first 20 seconds of the movie unedited.

So, having an electric-chair motorbike turns out to be kind of like JAWS: it only really presents a danger before people are told not to go to the beach/sit on strange motorbikes. So after the first two, you gotta change up the gimmick a bit. Fuckin' shark never came out the ceiling at you, that's real hustle. These big studio stars, I swear, no effort at all.

Still, for some reason I can’t exactly bring myself to hate it. At the very least, it seems like it moves along at a brisk pace, there’s almost always something cheerfully stupid and funny happening, and it doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously. There’s a lame but consistent strain of dorky humor which runs through it, kinda a refreshing change from the usual feverish Italian horror plots. It has a devilish motorcycle murderer, that delightful animated 80’s electricity, and a plot which is at least closer to coherence than most of the Italian films which were made around this time would be (not that coherence should necessarily be confused with watchability, but still). Oh, and there’s a song by a band called “Rough Cutt,” that’s pretty metal. At the very least, this is pretty much the perfect slasher to watch with a bunch of drunk people, especially if you accept my challenge to take a shot for every 100 actors we see without a single non-white person appearing on-screen.*** Realistically, that’s about the best you could hope for from a movie called WELCOME TO SPRING BREAK, so in that sense, this one doesn’t disappoint. If “laughable enough to just barely get by” is what you’re in the market for, Harry Kirkpatrick**** has got a fine one for ya.

*They’re called The Demons, and they have the logo from Lamberto Bava’s film of the same name on the back of their jackets, one of the few overt signs that this is made by Italians.

**Holy shit, he’s in PRINCE AVALANCHE?

***Warning: Do not actually do this as it will result in vomiting, death, and a lingering desire to join the Nation of Islam.

****By the way, the most notable person with the real given name of "Harry Kirkpatrick" was the famous IRA agent who turned states evidence, resulting in much bloodshed in the mid 80s. I guess it’s possible that by ‘88 he was directing teen slasher films in America, cleverly using his own name because he knew no one would ever believe it.


The Hunt For Dread October

  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: I like to think it started at an adaptation of Camus's The Stranger and just gradually went off-track.
  • SEQUEL: None, oddly.
  • REMAKE: You know it's coming, but as of October 2014, not yet.
  • FOREIGNER: American/Italian co-production.
  • BELOVED HORROR ICON: Michael Parks, John Saxon, Umberto Lenzi
  • BOOBIES: Wet T-Shirt contest quickly becomes a No T-shirt contest.
  • SEXUAL ASSAULT: None that I recall.
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: Lots of burning deaths, and one popped-out eyeball.
  • HAUNTED HOUSE: Haunted Motorcycle. Oh my God, Mitch Hedberg was right!
  • MONSTER: Nah
  • THE UNDEAD: There is implied to be an undead killer, yes.
  • SLASHER/GIALLO: Classic Slasher, though he tends to use electricity.
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): None
  • EVIL CULT: Evil gang of bikers?
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: College kids are just the worst. Also, just like PRISON, I guess don't frame a criminal and then kill them in the electric chair, you are just setting yourself up for electrified gimmicky revenge.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: Spring Break occurs, I don't remember any welcome but close enough.

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