Wednesday, October 21, 2015

He Knows You're Alone

He Knows You’re Alone (1980) aka Blood Wedding.
Dir. Armand Mastroianni
Written by Scott Parker
Starring Don Scardino, Caitlin O'Heaney, Elizabeth Kemp, Tom Rolfing, James Rebhorn

Filmmaking in general, and the horror genre particularly, is built on plagiarism. The minute the original 1931 DRACULA turned a few dusty castle sets and a morphine-addled Hungarian ham into a license to print money, studio execs were knocking their martinis into their piles of blow in their haste to reach a phone to demand more like that. What followed was the first great wave of cinematic horror, as studios churned through every possible gothic horror adaptation, eventually ran out, and started making up new ones. Over time, that cycle waned, but others followed it. Sci-fi creature features became all the rage after THEM! took off in 1954 and became Warner’s highest grossing film that year. The success of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD spawned a generation of zombie cheapies. THE EXORCIST in 1973 brought a raft of possession movies. But by 1978, the public has a shiny new toy. It was John Carpenter’s landmark American slasher HALLOWEEN, which had just become, at the time, the most profitable independent film ever made. Well, the studios liked everything about that sentence except the “independent” part, and so it was not long into 1979 before United Artists/MGM had novice director Armand Mastroianni on location in Staten Island with the explicit instructions to produce more like that, and as quickly as possible.

And produce more like that he did. But even at this very early stage in the American slasher cycle, Mastroianni or somebody already had at least some vague idea that a straight-ahead recycling wouldn’t do anymore. They had to put their own spin on it, something distinct to make their particular regurgitation of the exact same beats stand out. Something colorful, something specific. And thus, the American gimmick slasher was born. No, it’s not that the killer here is psychic and knows you’re alone, nor is the killer agoraphobic and deathly afraid of gatherings of more than two people, although both of those would be perfectly adequate gimmicks which you’re free to steal for future use, Hollywood. In fact, I think only one person he kills IS alone, everyone else has another person immediately nearby and he just kills one or both of them. But no, the gimmick here is better explained by the alternate and more schlock-friendly title: Blood Wedding. That still doesn’t quite get to the meat of it, though, since this guy’s deal is actually very specific: he only wants to kill engaged women (and, I guess, their friends and anyone their friends happen to be with) slightly before the wedding, and he has no apparent beef with grooms. OK, maybe not the most memorable gimmick in slasher history, but cut em some slack, they were new at this. Besides, last weekend I attended the wedding of longtime friends of the site Anne and Adam, so I thought I’d give a generally wedding-themed slasher film a look in their honor, and as a general tribute to the robust longevity of the institution of marriage/ requiem for the death of marriage in the eyes of God, depending on which political party you’re seeking the nomination of. So Anne and Adam, enjoy this review of a middling early 80’s slasher, as my little gift to you.*  

HE KNOWS YOU’RE ALONE (also known as HE KNOWS YOUR ALONE a lot of places around the internet) is in almost every imaginable way a shameless, blatant, brazen daylight highway robbery of every part of HALLOWEEN the director could recreate, working on memory a year after having seen it. But it actually begins with a sequence which would itself be stolen wholesale by arguably John Carpenter’s only peer in the eschelons of revolutionary 70’s horror directors: Wes Craven. Craven would lift the opening sequence, often nearly shot-for-shot, for his own film SCREAM 2 in 1997, which should really tell you something about just how quickly the slasher genre turned meta. Shooting less than a year after HALLOWEEN, writer Scott Parker (HE KNOWS YOU’RE ALONE and one other movie the same year, and then nothing else) starts us off with a predictable-looking masked slasher chasing an amourous couple around a some abandoned building. But here’s the thing -- that’s not the our titular slasher, it’s a movie-within-a-movie which our temporary protagonists are watching! Our blonde placeholder character doesn’t care for horror movies, and she turns out to have a pretty good point because she gets stabbed to death in the theater, but no one notices because everyone’s screaming anyway. Woah, blowin’ our minds here, remember, this is before DEMONS and even before DEMONS 2. Later, a character talks about the shower scene from PSYCHO, and then almost immediately takes a shower while we know the killer’s in the house. But get this -- nothing happens!  It’s almost like it’s some kind of meta-commentary or something. This ain’t your daddy’s slasher movie. Unless your name is Colin Hanks, in which case it literally is your daddy’s slasher movie. Tom Hanks has a small role as the boyfriend of one of the victims, in his screen debut. That’s right, without HE KNOWS YOU’RE ALONE, there would be no BOSOM BUDDIES, so let that sobering thought sit with you for awhile.

When the cops arrive to deal with the dead girl in the theater, one mustachio’d guy (Lewis Arlt, CONFESSION OF A DANGEROUS MIME [sic]) is really bored by how trivial it is that a girl was brutally murdered in a crowded place for no reason (jeez, this small town must be rougher than it looks) but he perks up immediately when the other cop (Paul Gleason, various cops and dads including THE BREAKFAST CLUB, DIE HARD, EWOKS: BATTLE FOR ENDOR) drops one little tidbit: this girl was engaged to be married. “I bet it’s him!” he gushes, a twinkle in his eye. When his buddy points out that it might be a coincidence, he’s even more sure. “Coincidence? No way, Frank, he’s back.” All of this is before the opening credits have finished running, which makes it sound like it doesn’t take long, but in this case means it’s a comfortable 15 minutes into this 90 minute movie, an impressive 17% of its total runtime.

The fact that the mention of “she was getting married” immediately sparks recognition of a serial killer with a memorable MO doesn’t bode well for our second group of characters, who sound suspiciously like they fit the bill (And that actually goes for all of them, because it turns out our killer isn’t too picky about how closely related to the wedding you actually are. Do they call mustache cop every time someone who knows someone who’s girlfriend knows someone who is engaged is murdered? Because it turns out they’re in danger too). Amy (Caitlin O'Heaney, ZELIG, LATE PHASES) is a nice, somewhat vacant young late-70’s college gal who is engaged to a young man named Phil (James Carroll, ABC’s After School Specials: Make Believe Marriage 1979) who heads off to his bachelor party and basically never appears again. She and her friends are, I guess, supposed to be having some sort of girl-time, but as far as I can tell that just means they go to a dance class and drink some wine afterwards. One of them is lusting after Tom Hanks from afar, as so many of us do, the other is banging her sleazy philosophy professor (James Rebhorn, weaselly guy from INDEPENDENCE DAY, THE GAME, and every movie with a weaselly guy**), and that’s about all the character development you’re gonna get. (Side note: think hard for a minute. Can you name a single movie from roughly 1970-1995 which features a college professor who is not banging students left and right? Was that a thing back then?)

Amy doesn’t know there’s a gimmick killer on the loose, but she does know that she’s being aggressively stalked. This guy follows her around, peeks in on her when she’s changing, shows up at her house at strange hours, asks her uncomfortable questions, emotionally manipulates her, and has a creepy vaguely defined job at the morgue. Sounds pretty suspicious, but actually this isn’t the killer, this is our romantic lead Marvin (Don Scardino, SQUIRM and, holy crap, Al Pacino's gay neighbor in CRUISING, though he would go on to be more prolific as a TV director in everything from Cosby to Law and Order to 30 Rock, where, in 2011, he directed his HE KNOWS YOU’RE ALONE co-star Tom Hanks). Marvin feels that Amy should be marrying him instead of Phil, and he’s creepily aggressive and persistent about it, which the movie and the girl find overwhelmingly charming for what I’m sure are reasons which made a lot of sense in 1979. But she’s ALSO being stalked by the killer (Tom Rolfing, HE KNOWS YOU’RE ALONE), who doesn’t wear a mask or anything, so it’s easy for him to just stand around in public during the daytime gawking at her, but for some reason no one else ever notices him.

The movie that follows from this strange pastiche of different scenarios (all crudely sewn together into a rigid approximation of HALLOWEEN) is put together competently enough, but it could do with a lot more actual horror. A lot of time is spent on its flakey protagonist’s second thoughts about getting married, which are handled adequately but don’t exactly make for riveting drama. The acting is generally better than some of is genre peers, but these are not even remotely interesting characters and the long setups to their rather pedestrian deaths are kinda a slog. It’s more interesting as a strange cultural artifact from the dawn of American slasher movies; Italian gialli were commonplace by this point, but the trend hadn’t quite made it to America yet, and wouldn’t really take off until a few years later, when it would become absolutely ubiquitous across the horror landscape with the FRIDAY THE 13ths. et al. In 1979, though, there was just HALLOWEEN, so Mastroianni (a native-born American, by the way, in case you figured him for an Italian import with a long history of slashers) has only one template to follow, resulting in a film which is in a lot of ways identical to HALLOWEEN, often replicating specific shots (for example, the famous shot of Michael Myers peering down the street at Laurie from a hedge, and disappearing the minute her friends look) or even the score --which is at times so close it delves into outright plagiarism***-- but also weirdly different in tone from the deluge of other slasher rip-offs which would follow. 

We know who the killer is immediately; for example, and he doesn’t wear a mask or anything, so his identity is never in doubt. That fits with HALLOWEEN --which reveals its killer right away-- pretty snugly, noticeably avoiding the whodunnit framework which is nearly ubiquitous among Gialli, but would be less essential to the American slasher genre (killers like Mike Myers or Jason Vorhees do tend to wear masks, but not to hide their identities). Even so, when our killer is plying his trade here, he’s virtually never in the shot; it either happens off-screen or we see a slightly-off POV shot of his hands or his shadow. That's a visual device which makes a lot of sense in a movie which is trying to disguise the killer's identity (like most gialli), but feels odd and constricting absent that narrative requirement. Obviously, they hadn’t quite thought through the mechanics of this tradeoff yet. 

In fact, the murders overall are fairly brutal but noticeably less stylized than even HALLOWEEN attempted; they clearly aspire towards realism in a way which subsequent versions of this premise would never think to attempt. And then there’s the simple fact that there just aren’t many of them; I don’t think Mastroianni and Co. quite understood the target demographic for the slasher genre yet. The whole thing plays out like a real movie with characters and interpersonal drama and stuff rather than a loosely organized framework to funnel exploitation genre payoffs onto the screen. Not that it’s good interpersonal drama or anything, and not that it doesn’t also have some blood and boobs, because it does, they figured that part out already. But it just seems to have a different conception of what a movie fundamentally is than the slasher genre which would follow it. Despite the 1980 premier, it’s unmistakably a 70’s movie in tone, in look, and in construction.

Consequently, it’s also a strange snapshot of the unresolved tension between the increasing mainstreaming of the sexual revolution and the repressed, traditional small town Americana the movie is set in. The girls here (like a few characters in HALLOWEEN) are fairly sexually liberated, but the killer is motivated by a rather patriarchal view on the subject of marriage and women’s sexuality; his killing spree begins when his fiancee leaves him to marry another man, as we see in a sort-of-but-not-quite POV flashback. It would seem like the movie would come down on the side of the gals, but Amy is a profoundly flakey character who doesn’t seem to know what she wants, and it’s up to Marvin to pressure her into leaving her current fiancee for and marry him. So much for empowerment. As for the other girls, this is definitely a good case study for people who claim slashers are all about punishing women for their perceived deviant behavior: the two big kills are women having sex or smoking pot (and one who was talking during a movie). This is, of course, identical to HALLOWEEN, where Carpenter has always rejected notions that he orchestrated the killings as a morality fable… but here, with so much time spent on the subject of marriage and sexuality and different men competing for women’s sexual affection, it feels pretty relevant, or at least noteworthy. Not that I think HE KNOWS YOU’RE ALONE has any kind of moral agenda; I just think it was unconsciously reflecting the profound ambivalence which was setting into American society as the mainstream culture lurched away from traditional values and towards an uncertain and still unresolved future.

Minor point here, but remember the days when you could smoke a big cigar while tailoring a wedding dress? I guess pretty much everything already smelled like smoke back then, so it wasn't a big deal. Ah, the good old days. Anyway, I know what you're thinking bub, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Anyway, that’s a lot to lay on a low-budget studio knockoff. This is well-appointed enough but pretty low on the slashing and not smart enough to make up for that with great characterization or anything. Really its biggest claim to fame is that it’s the debut of Hollywood Superstar Tom Hanks (SPLASH, THE SIMPSONS MOVIE), so you probably want to know a little more about that before we go, I assume that’s the lone reason you even managed to skim those last two paragraphs. Hanks is 7th-billed, along with Dana Barron (DEATH WISH IV: CRACKDOWN) who plays Amy’s little sister. It’s her screen debut as well, but I think she got overshadowed a little even though she’s younger, because there's no escaping the fact that Hanks --even a very young, very dorky Hanks in a nothing role-- is an obvious talent. He plays a pointless, inexplicable boyfriend character who shows up out of nowhere halfway through, has one scene where he’s the focus and gets to talk a lot (but not about anything important) and then never shows up again. I frankly have no idea why this character is in the movie at all. Both IMDB and Wikipedia offer uncited trivia that, “Hanks' character was originally written to be killed off with Nancy's character [spoiler], but because the filmmakers liked him so much, they omitted filming his death scene for the film.” Which would explain why he disappears without a trace and is never mentioned again, and would also go a long way to explaining how this movie ended up like it did. Filmmakers who think they’re rewarding an actor by cutting their death scene in a hacky slasher like this clearly have no real understanding of the medium. But that’s OK; just like Hanks, Mastroianni, and Barron, the slasher craze was just getting started. Of the three, only Hanks and slashers would go on to fame and fortune, and only one of them is still a huge phenomenon today. But it’s fun to see them all together here at the start, with a lot of raw promise but before they really had any fucking clue what was going on.

So for all you newlyweds out there, I can only wish you a tenure as long as Hanks, a passion as intense as America’s brief infatuation with slashers, and some stories as weird as Mastroianni and Barron must be able to tell at dinner parties. L'chaim!

*Please note that I picked this instead of THE HONEYMOON KILLERS, because this slasher only kills people before the wedding, so you guys are both in the clear now. I didn’t want to worry you by bringing up the danger before the wedding, but whew, that was a close one, huh?

** And apparently “Bigfoot/Chinese #1” in Grand Theft Auto V?

*** Though it’s equally liable to get inappropriately funky at a moment’s notice, for what it’s worth. Russian/American piano composer Alexander Peskanov did just two film scores; this and Mastroianni’s follow-up, THE CLAIRVOYANT, aka THE KILLING HOUR. He’s gone on to be quite a respected-looking classical composer and performer, and even has a series of piano instructional books for students. Hey kids, you can learn to play piano just like the composer of HE KNOWS YOU’RE ALONE!


Play it Again, Samhain

  • TAGLINE: Every girl is frightened the night before her wedding, but this time... there's good reason!
  • SEQUEL: No
  • REMAKE: No, but you fuckin’ know that shit’s coming. They better get Hanks back for a cameo, though. Johnny Depp did one in FREDDY’S DEAD, Tom.
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Hanks, though long before he was famous. Most of the rest of the cast went on to long TV careers, in fact it seems like every one of them has been on either Law and Order or 30 Rock at some point, though as far as I can tell not in any of the episodes of those shows Scardino directed.
  • BOOBIES: You’ll have to wait for the 11th hour, but they finally do arrive when a minor character takes an unnecessary and uneventuful shower near the climax.
  • SEXUAL ASSAULT: No, although marriage is very tied up in all this.
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: Head removed and placed in fish tank.
  • SLASHER/GIALLO: Indeed, though an early American one.
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): No
  • EVIL CULT: None
  • VOYEURISM: Yeah, this killer guy is stalking her and watching her from afar. Sometimes we also get a something-like-POV approach through the killer’s eyes, too.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: If the girl you love is marrying someone else, constantly hector her and pester her and try to guilt her out of it, and then be present (though not especially helpful) during the final confrontation with the killer. Works like a charm, every time.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: No, he doesn’t appear to know or care that anyone’s alone. BLOOD WEDDING at least gives the gimmick up, but there isn’t any blood at an actual wedding, just before.
  • ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE: She somehow performed the feat of enjoying this one, pretty rare when she actually likes one of these more than I did.

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