Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Final Terror

The Final Terror (1983) aka Carnivore
Dir. Andrew Davis
Written by Jon George, Neill D. Hicks, Ronald Shusett
Starring  John Friedrich, Rachel Ward, Daryl Hannah, Adrian Zmed, Lewis Smith, Ernest Harden Jr, Mark Metcalf, and Joe Pantoliano.

The first thing that jumps out at you about THE FINAL TERROR is its pedigree. Check it out, very early roles for Daryl Hannah, Rachel Ward, “and Joe Pantoliano as Eggar” (as the credits knew to introduce him, even though it was only his third credited role.) And it was the second movie for director Andrew Davis, future director of the Academy-Award-nominated THE FUGITIVE. Davis would later give Steven Seagal his start and his biggest hit by directing ABOVE THE LAW and UNDER SIEGE respectively, direct Tommy Lee Jones to his first and only Oscar, give early starring roles to Viggo Mortensen and Shia LeBeouf, and even directed Chuck Norris in his sole semi-respectable movie CODE OF SILENCE. His contributions to Seagalogy alone would make him an American hero even if he had never made a slasher with Joe Pantoliano... and he did that too, so having him at the helm is pretty cool. Plus, it was co-written by Ronald Shusett, who does not in all honesty have an unimpeachable track record of greatness, but when you number among your successes ALIEN, DEAD AND BURIED, and TOTAL RECALL, you’re forgiven a lot of FREEJACKS. That’s quite a lot of talent for a movie which didn’t even get released for two years after its production, and more than enough to make you extremely suspicious about why you’ve never heard of it before. This has BLEEDERS or EXORCIST II written all over it -- a can’t-fail proposition which obviously must have failed spectacularly, or you’d have already seen it.

But strangely, THE FINAL TERROR doesn’t exactly fail. It’s just not what anyone would expect, and it’s completely understandable that no one would expect it because there’s nothing else really like it. Shot in 1980  --just two years after HALLOWEEN made piles of money and inaugurated an army of imitators which would dominate the horror genre for the next decade-- this one, like HE KNOWS YOU’RE ALONE a year earlier, is one of those curious very early slashers which tried to replicate the success of HALLOWEEN before the slasher genre really solidified into the standard template it eventually became.

Today, everyone knows the formula for a slasher: A bunch of teens head out to some isolated location, fuck each other and prattle on about nothing and gradually get bumped off one by one in increasingly outrageous ways by a deranged killer of some kind, probably wearing some sort of mask. They’re supposed to be kind of goofy and sophomoric, and the emphasis is on the imaginative gore and establishing the killer’s iconic gimmickry. In fact, the emphasis is almost entirely on the killings, to the exclusion of other aspects of storytelling. This is just one of those The Way Things Are things; there’s some room for variation in the details, but the structure itself is pretty ironclad. So much so that today, if a movie with a killer strays even a small amount from the formula, it’s inevitably going to be notable mainly for its undermining of our expectations, and hence is going to be defined by traditional slasher expectations anyway. If your movie has a killer and a bodycount, you can be a traditional slasher or a commentary on slashers, and those are pretty much your only options.

But back in 1980 when this thing was made,* things were a little more fuzzy. We understood that there needed to be some kind of killer with a mythic backstory, and we understood that there needed to be a cadre of expendable generically pretty white people and maybe their one black friend who get killed. But as to the specific structure and the tone, things were still pretty undefined. In fact, the whole genre was somewhat undefined; the very term “slasher film” had not yet come to prominence; the earliest use of the term that I can confirm online appears to be in Cinefantastique Magazine, Volume 11, Fall 1981, a year after THE FINAL TERROR wrapped (though its use in that article makes it clear it must have been at least somewhat recognizable in the parlance of the time; I can find some evidence of other possible earlier examples, but for which I can't lock down a definitive date). I very much doubt anyone on the set considered what they were making to be a “slasher film,” or part of any particular distinct subgenre. That would come fairly soon; in the next few years, other movies would figure out how and what to mimic in HALLOWEEN and --especially-- FRIDAY THE 13th, the genre-defining series which premiered the same year THE FINAL TERROR was filmed. But remember, even FRIDAY THE 13th didn’t quite get the formula fine-tuned until 1982’s third sequel, the first where Jason picks up his iconic hockey mask. At the franchise’s humble beginning, the films still had the rough shape of a slasher movie, but with some decidedly unusual quirks.

Likewise, THE FINAL TERROR is unmistakably and unambiguously a slasher movie in some ways, but in others it’s totally unlike any other genre movie I’ve ever seen. It’s an incredibly bizarre misery-porn survivalist slasher-meets-DELIVERANCE hybrid. The setup is classic slasher -- a bunch of, I guess, camp counselors (it’s a little unclear) wander through the forest and have shenanigans, only to be attacked by a murderous backwoods psycho with a tragic backstory and a signature weapon. That sentence describes roughly 658,000 identical z-grade movies from the 80s, but THE FINAL TERROR doesn’t play out as you expect at all.

It starts the way you expect, though: with an inexplicable mostly mumbled semi-explanation as to what’s going on with at least some of our characters. I think it’s clear that they’re at least in some way kind of involved with some sort of woodland youth camp, though I can’t tell if they’re all counselors or if some are counselors and some are campers and they’re just the same age. They talk about it being a “work detail” and some of them are wearing uniforms, but then they also pick up a bunch of women to go into the woods and have sex with? Their bus has “Redwood County Youth Corps” crudely stenciled on the side, and the back says “Wild River Fire Base,” whatever that means. Googling “Youth Corps” produces a ton of hits, but they seem to be disparate organizations with the same generic name, and mostly for kids in early high school (is that how old these 20-somethings are supposed to be?). There is a Redwood County, Minnesota -- is that where they’re supposed to be? Googling “Redwood County Youth Corps” doesn’t produce any hits, but Redwood National State Park (in California, and not in Redwood County) does employ something they call a “Youth Conservation Corps” which their website claims pays $8 an hour to youths age 15-18 for “a chance to participate in conservation work throughout Redwood National and State Parks...Specific work projects include trail building and maintenance, painting, landscape projects and general park cleanup. Participants may also assist in backcountry road maintenance and removal of exotic plant species within the park boundary. Natural and cultural resource education is incorporated into the eight-week program, as well as a backcountry camping trip and year-end picnic.(source) These characters wear badges which look similar to the National Park Service badge, so I think this is the most likely explanation, but man, $8 per hour of taxpayer money is going to these hooligans so they can tromp through the woods and get high and fuck each other? Oh my god, Grover Norquist was right! Maybe I’m getting old, but these kids are so rambunctious my first assumption was that this was some sort of forced labor camp for juvenile delinquents.

Anyway, it took me three viewings and quite a bit of googling and meticulous pausing to unravel the mystery of what the basic setup is, which means this probably approaches Amando Ossorio levels of unnecessarily convoluting a basic premise. But even from the start, we have a pretty good idea that these kids (?) aren’t going to have time for a lot of backcountry road maintenance or removal of exotic plant species. The first thing we see on-screen is a young couple who who end up the victim of deadly traps set by an unseen killer, before the title even comes up. Even the characters in the movie seem to understand that this isolated event will later impact them:  “What about that missing couple?” one concerned parent of one of the girls asks. “They’ll be OK, there’s three adults” Mark Metcalf, who seems to be the leader, explains. I guess he’s about 10 years older than the rest, but I don’t know who else he’s talking about, and all the actors including him are between 20 and 35.

Anyway, off we go to the woods, with a full complement of young people to kill off. The one person not along for the ride is the only other guy besides Mark Metcalf who seems to be a paid employee of anything, and that would be the shifty, suspicious Southern bus driver Eggar [sic] (Joe Pantoliano, THE MATRIX, THE FUGITIVE), who does not cotton to the idea of bringing nubile teens into nature for the purposes of having sex (remember, this was before the invention of having sex somewhere with a bed and shower, so heading off into the woods under the vague auspices of working for the National Park Service was the only option available to any of these kids if they wanted to get laid). Though he’s hard to understand with his hillbilly drawl, Eggar seems to be warning them away from this particular wilderness trail, and really takes it suspiciously personally when one of the kids tells a spooky tale about a murderous backwoods psycho who is said to haunt these very woods. The next morning, Eggar and another camper have mysteriously vanished. Hmmm….

Right where the backstory of the killer gets pre-explained, though, we suddenly see we’re not dealing with a normal slasher. Because this is absolutely the most depressing backstory of any killer in history. Here is the entire tale, transcribed verbatim (punctuated as its inflections dictate), as related by one of the kids around a campfire, as if this were in any way an acceptable story to relate in this medium:

“OK, so once upon a time, not too long ago, this used to be a logging camp, right here. And there was this little sweet, 14 year old girl who lived here with a big family, and her father died so her uncle came to take care of the place. He was a lumberjack. He was a mean son of a bitch. Mean boy. And one night [his? this? unintelligible] uncle said, “hey Susie Q, you want to go for a little walk in the woods?” So he took her on one of these trails here, way far out, you know, like we are? And he raped her. She screamed but nobody could hear her. She had to keep all this inside after the rape, she couldn’t tell anybody because, you know, he was supporting the family. She was afraid to. So she started going crazy. So what they done is, they put her in a mental institution. You know, that one we passed on the way down here? And while she’s in the hospital, they find out that she’s pregnant. So she has this little baby boy. But, the Doctor says ‘well, she’s too messed up to take care of the kid.’ So they take the baby away from her. OK, so 19 years later, this young kid, just about my age, shows up down there at the hospital. And he wants to see this lady. So they let him in, and he goes crazy. He just freaks out. Says “you can’t treat my momma like this, you can’t keep her in this garbage can!” It was her son! He just stole her right out of the place, just took her. But she was so crazy, you know? That he didn’t know what to do with her, so he put her out here in these woods, so she could live in peace, you know? So the story goes, that whenever anybody camps out around here, she sneaks into your camp, she whispers to you. She bends down over you --and I mean, you can just smell her breathing on you [you feel? unintelligible] -- she says “wwhoooo stole myy laaaamp [?]? Whoo stole my… YYEEAAAAARRRRGHHH!!!” [here he suddenly screams at the listeners, startling them into forgetting that nothing in his story would explain why the murderous old rape victim would be asking questions about a lamp].

I shit you not, that is the actual backstory for the killer here. How the fuck are we supposed to hate and fear this lady now that we know she was raped at 14 and locked up in a mental institution and had her son taken from her? Can’t we just get her a sponsor and a support network, throw some empowerment platitudes at her, maybe show her I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE for some spiritual healing, and try to help her build a new life for herself? Whatever slashing she may perpetuate, she’s spent more of her life as a victim than a villain. The movie seems to have no idea whatsoever that this is a complete buzzkill, and seems to totally expect us to come down on the side of boy, I hope these horny teens get their revenge on this crazy bitch. But as weird and inappropriate a narrative as this is for a slasher movie, it’s vastly more so in its context as a spooky campfire story. Eggar gets suspiciously angry at the guy telling the story (“What the hell you tellin’ stories like that for, huh boy?!” he fumes) and you get three guess as to why, but I can't help notice that he’s absolutely right. This is the absolute worst Are You Afraid Of The Dark episode ever. Everyone else seems to think it’s a real hoot, though.

Anyway, from there, things get back to the expected slasher routine for awhile. Everyone separates to look for the missing camper, the two 30-year-olds decide to bone in the woods instead (ironic, since the explicitly stated reason they’re out in the woods is so these young’uns can get freaky, but the only two people who end up boning are the two self-described adults who presumably do have an indoor location they can fuck at their convenience instead of a damp, fetid forest floor) and one of them gets killed mid-coitus. They find a scary old decrepit cabin which clearly has THE HILLS HAVE EYES in mind, they get attacked on a bus (in a pretty great sequence where the killer slashes at them from the roof) and have to escape in a panic.

But here’s where things get really weird. The characters here are your typical stock cannon fodder (the only actor other than Pantoliano who stands out being John Friedrich, who had already retired from acting to become a financial consultant by the time the movie came out; Hannah and Ward don’t make much of an impression other than being pretty) but the production hews toward gritty realism rather than slasher schlock. Even when they’re not being attacked by a diabolical victim of child rape, these kids are facing a real hard time; they’re out in the woods, miles away from civilization, with barely any supplies, it’s cold, it’s rainy, it’s wet, there’s nowhere to go, they’re dirty and exhausted. It’s certainly the first ostensible slasher movie I’ve seen that really labors to make you realize just how much it would suck to have to survive in these conditions. Hell, one guy even starts philosophically musing about Vietnam and how we “lost the war.” There’s a lot of talk about survival tactics, a lot of discussion as to what to do, and the people are surprisingly practical about it. They stick together, they don’t do much in-fighting. They really seem like they would like to survive, but man, this shit looks like a real drag.

But then again, it ain’t easy to be a killer, either. Slasher movies traditionally have a scene where our heroes are trying to escape, and then improbably stumble upon the body of a friend. Sometimes, the killer will even play mind games by, say, suddenly dropping the body into a group of unsuspecting victims just when they think they’re safe. That’s exactly what happens here, except for one minor detail: it’s not played as a cheap shock. In fact, we actually get to see from her own point of view how the killer accomplishes this seemingly miraculous feat of villainy: while everyone is escaping, she kidnaps the soon-to be corpse and stalks the escaping kids silently through the woods for miles, forcing the friend along at knifepoint only to slash her throat right before dumping the body in front of the panicked campers. Man, this slashing business is hard work if you wanna do it right. But I guess she doesn’t really have much else to do with her time.

Davis has a way of shooting the forest that makes it looks alternately stunning and grotesque, half fairy-tale, half gritty, decaying reality (which, now that I think about it, more or less describes the film, too). Kinda evokes Werner Herzog’s classic rant about his perspective on the rainforest in THE BURDEN OF DREAMS; there’s nothing romanticized about nature here, it’s primordial, austere. Heck, despite the backstory, the killer herself seems to rise up out of nature, dirty and feral and unknowable. In one case literally:

Still, considering the movie’s title, there isn’t a ton of terror here. But it IS final. No sequel for this one, and I’ll tell you why. But to do so I’m going to have to SPOILER the movie’s ending. And it’s a doozy, and you don’t want that. So don’t read this unless you’ve seen the movie. Here goes:


So, the kids decide they need to make a stand against Eggar, who they still incorrectly assume is the one who’s stalking them. One of them takes mushrooms and starts quietly rambling to himself about Vietnam (not that he was there, he’s like 23 and this is 1980. But still, I’m sure it was on everyone’s mind still), but the rest decide they have to hatch a plan. We catch up to them early the next morning, as someone is scaling a giant redwood for reasons we don’t understand yet. Next, they lure Eggar out of the woods and beat the tar out of him (which seems kinda sad, since we know he isn’t actually trying to kill them, but instead trying to protect his mentally ill mother). That rouses momma bear, who comes running out of the woods with murder in her eyes. But they’re not the ones who should be worried. Out of the fucking blue, the lady springs a trap which brings a giant, spiked log hurtling out of the sky, ewok-style. All she can do is blink in surprise before she’s impaled on this giant wooden stake and whisked off into the air, to swing limply back and forth as the funky theme song comes back up. Roll credits. Holy shit. That’s gotta be one of the most abrupt and definitive endings in all of slasherdom. No denouement, no epilogue, nothing to tell us that Terry “The Toad” was killed in Vietnam, just a sudden, violent comeuppance for our killer and we’re fuckin’ outta there. The suddenness of such a brutal conclusion and its brazen disregard for the cardinal rule of a slasher -- leave it open-ended enough for a sequel -- make it kinda jaw-dropping even in a movie which never quite goes where you think it will.

Anyway, despite the assembled talent here there’s probably not quite enough juice to coast to “unfairly-ignored gem” status. It’s real slow-moving, the survivalist stuff is OK but not such a great match for the slasher parts, and the whole thing is a little too serious-minded to be as much fun as the schlocky premise requires. But it’s definitely worth a true slasher connoisseur's time for it’s agreeable uniqueness, and especially that crazy ending. It’s more an interesting evolutionary curiosity than an independently great work of art, but hey, at least it’s interesting, there’s dignity in that, and it’s really more than I dared hope for. An interesting window into a parallel evolutionary world where the slasher genre took a radically different direction. I’m glad we don’t live in that world, but it’s an interesting place to explore for an hour and some change. Plus, Joey Pants has a ridiculous over-the-top redneck accent, how are you supposed to live your life not having seen that? Fuck it, I’m convinced, you should definitely see this thing.

* Again, note that it was shelved til 1983, and only premiered thanks to the burgeoning popularity of its at-the-time unknown stars Daryl Hannah and Rachel Ward

Play it Again, Samhain

  • TAGLINE: Without knowing, they have awakened an unknown force... can anyone survive?
  • SEQUEL: No
  • REMAKE: No
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Daryl Hannah and Rachel Ward had become famous in the two intervening years between the film's production and its release. And Joey Pants is as goddam A-list as they come.
  • BELOVED HORROR ICON: Writer Roland Shusset
  • BOOBIES: None
  • MULLETS: Oh yeah.
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: None, this is a mostly throat-slashing affair.
  • SLASHER/GIALLO: Yes, though an early and weird one.
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): No
  • EVIL CULT: Nah.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Extremely high.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: Victims of childhood rape are murderous psychopaths, and should be isolated from everyone.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: Not a lot of terror, but definitely plenty of finality.

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  1. the Final Terror is pretty good, but it's no The Final Sacrifice

  2. On the other hand, it's way better than THE FINAL COUNTDOWN.