Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Djinn (2013)

Djinn (finished in 2011, released in 2013)
Dir. Tobe Hooper
Written by David Tully
Starring Khalid Laith, Razane Jammal, Aiysha Hart,




OK, so I had this idea, that we’d watch DJINN (2013) and JINN (2014) back-to-back, while drinking gin. As soon as I said it aloud, I knew I’d have to do it, puns and alcoholism being what they are. But actually I had a rather more lofty goal for this particular pairing, which was Peace in the Middle East. Didn’t pull that one off, as it turns out, but I maintain that my method was sound. See, if you’re like me --and if you read 5,500 words on TRICK OR TREAT, I can’t help but assume you’re at least a little like me-- you’re concerned with the rising tide of Islamophobia which is sweeping America and Europe. Solidarity is what we need. So I decided to stake out some common ground with the Muslim world on one topic which is universally beloved by everyone, everywhere. The only thing that came to mind was The Kardashians, but unfortunately after four or five seconds of watching their TV show I felt my soul retreat into a fortified bunker and begin to stockpile automatic weapon and meth, so I resolved to tackle the next most universally beloved institution: horror movies.


The horror genre is kind of interesting in a global sense. While virtually every culture --indeed, I cannot think of an exception-- has at least some tradition of home-grown action, romance, and dramatic films, horror is a somewhat less ubiquitous genre. Obviously horror has been a staple of Western cinema since the beginning (following on a strain of horror literature, storytelling and, ultimately, folktales which date back even further), but there has also been a long tradition of horror cinema in East Asia --notably Japan--, Bollywood, South and Central America, and even Nollywood. Not so much in the middle East, though, despite a long and venerable history of home-grown cinema in Iran, Turkey, Israel, and Egypt (as well as small but notable industries in Morocco, Liberia, Lebanon, and Palestine, to name a few others). Israeli cinema seems to have made the leap into horror filmmaking in recent years (the earliest I could easily find is 2010’s RABIES; at least one article claims it is the very first , but since then there have been at least a half-dozen more), but fairly exhaustive searches for comparable Islamic horror films offers few results indeed (there is a 2008 Turkish horror movie unfortunately called SEMUM; that is the earliest and only example I can find, though Hollywood-based Muslim producers like Mustapha Akkad have been turning out secular horror films in America for quite awhile). In fact, google searches for “Muslim Horror Movies” result in fretful message board queries about whether or not horror movies are haram before any actual IMBD results (don’t worry, the highest upvoted response assures us that it’s ok: “Islam is not a religion full of harams,” it admonishes. Just don’t get ridiculous about it).*




So what does that leave for us to build our peace initiative on? Only two movies that I could find, and both with a curiously similar --yet distinct-- pedigree, a mixture of both Americans and Islamic artists. First, there’s DJINN (2013), a movie financed and shot in the United Arab Emirates. It features substantial local input and control and a nearly all-Arab cast, but was written and directed by American white guys. And then there’s JINN (2014), a 100% American production (shot in Ann Arbor, Michigan!) but directed by a Muslim-American and featuring a Muslim protagonist. I don’t know if either film fully meets my criteria of “Islamic Horror Film,” (maybe that’s why World Peace didn’t follow?), and in all honesty neither film could realistically be called “good,” but as experiments into the intersection of Western exploitation genres and Islamic folk tradition, they’re at least mildly interesting artifacts. If we can’t have World Peace, at least that’s something.



The first object of our curiosity is also chronologically first; indeed, shooting wrapped back in 2011, although inexplicably it took two more years to finally premier. I can find no specific reason as to why, but that has rarely if ever been a good sign. DJINN is not the first film --nor even the first horror film-- to center around the Islamic Djinn, or “genie,” as it has been Anglicized in popular culture. The first (or at least, the first I can find) cinematic appearance seems to have been 1940’s THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD which features a classic genie-in-a-bottle setup which has more or less defined the norm in Western depictions. Western iterations of Djinn mythos tend to be more or less benevolent plot devices, but it’s worth noting that the first thing the genie in THIEF OF BAGHDAD does it attempt to kill the protagonist, before being subdued and forced to take on the traditional role of wish-granter. It’s a bit closer to the traditional Arab depiction of Djinn as powerful, potentially malevolent creatures than the lighthearted versions followed -- Burl Ives plays a genie in the 1964 comedy THE BRASS BOTTLE, the 1965 sit-com I Dream of Jeannie ran five seasons-- and it would not be until the little-seen 1987 horror film THE OUTING that a Djinn would again be portrayed as a source of danger. That would be followed a decade later by perhaps the most well-known sinister cinematic interpretation of Djinn; the WISHMASTER series, currently boasting a healthy three DTV sequels (it has a DVD combo pack with both LEPRECHAUN and PUMPKINHEAD II, so I guess you could say things are getting pretty serious).


Since then, there has been a smattering of other horror films to play with the concept (the 2002 UK horror film LONG TIME DEAD, the 2009 American film RED SANDS). All of these depictions, though, treat the Djinn as a more-or-less generic demonic figure, mostly unbound by any particular cultural or religious tradition. But despite their popular portrayal, Djinn are a specifically Islamic concept -- there’s even a chapter in the Quran which is explicitly about them: sura 72, Al-Jinn (not to be confused with The Simpsons writer and showrunner Al Jean). Apparently belief in Djinn is fairly commonplace throughout the Muslims world, to the extent that the filmmakers in this case --shooting in The UAE state of Ras al-Khaimah, had to cover the name on the director’s chair to appease the concerned locals. DJINN, therefore, is not unique in its depiction of the Djinn as a horror movie antagonist, but it is unique in its depiction of the Djinn in a specifically Muslim context, with Muslim protagonists living in a Muslim country.




Unfortunately, that’s pretty much the only unique thing about the movie. Which is not to say it’s a complete disaster, exactly. Considering the profoundly depressing latter-day work of director Tobe Hooper (THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and POLTERGEIST, but also THE MANGLER and CROCODILE 2000), it’s a surprisingly competent riff on ROSEMARY’S BABY and any number of Generic Ghost movies, with a Muslim twist. Maybe comparable to the similarly Jewish-themed EXORCIST ripoff POSSESSION but way more low rent and shot on shittier cameras. And not with enough of a Muslim twist. The unusual locale and protagonists do bring a touch of color to the proceedings, but unfortunately nearly everything else is as generic and boilerplate as horror movies come. Not entirely incompetent, but very, very short on anything remotely original or noteworthy.


The plot is agreeably simple. It begins --as does JINN-- with a little bit of backstory for us barbaric crusaders who may not know a lot about the subject. Djinn, it seems, are one of three sentient species created at the beginning of time by God, using different materials. Mankind was crafted out of clay; Angels out of light, and finally Djinn, out of fire (you can see why God would leave the fire one for last, after he’d really gotten the hang of it). So good, that brings us up to speed with the backstory. Our heroes for this particular caper are Khalid (Khalid Laith, THE DEVIL’S DOUBLE) and Salama (Razane Jammal, A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES), UAE expats who have lived in the United States for long enough to have built a successful life here. But since the recent tragic death of their baby, Salama’s been depressed, and Khalid decides that a return to their homeland might help her. She’s a bit more reticent, but lets herself get talked into it. And who wouldn’t be cheered up by the first sight of their new digs?




Surprisingly, the film conjures a pretty strong ambiance, right off the bat, thanks in a large part to the weird, creepy location, a giant nearly-deserted luxury apartment perpetually shrouded in impenetrable --mist? Smoke? Sandstorm? Hard to say, but as you can see the movie commits to it pretty heroically, and the result is an off-kilter sense of surreal displacement and isolation. That we later learn the tower was built upon the Islamic equivalent of an ancient Indian burial ground should surprise no one, but honestly the setting itself goes a long way towards actually giving the whole enterprise a bleak, nightmarish vibe much more potent than the standard-issue ghouls which inhabit it warrant.


Unfortunately, it’s slow going once we get there. Mostly Khalid works while Salama frets at home and starts to notice subtle and not-so-subtle signs that things aren’t quite right here. The Djinn itself looks pretty good as far as these things go; it’s nothing you haven't seen before if you’re even passingly acquainted with horror movies, but its skittering-crawling movements on the wall and floor still have a pleasing creep factor. But slightly more impactful is one of the building’s few apparently human inhabitants (Aiysha Hart, 2014’s HONOUR), a worrisomely friendly interloper who seems a little too interested in her new neighbors, and also sports some truly aggressive Dark Jedi eyes. Kind of a anti-Ruth-Gordon Ruth Gordon. Hart’s pretty good, actually, generating the exact right balance superficial friendliness and and uneasy pushiness.




Everything works, as these things go, but there’s no getting around the fact that it’s also pretty unforgivably staid, considering the functional-but-bedrock-standard tools it’s wielding. One of the best scenes involves a surreal party next door with a appetizer of maggots (leave it to the director of TCM to know the value of a vivid horror meal). The film could use a little more of that kind of weirdness, because its ghostly shenanigans are as low-effort as these things come. And these problems are not helped by a thoroughly dull performance by Jammal, a pretty actress who almost comically under-reacts to the total craziness which quickly envelopes her. Jammal is more or less on her own for most of the movie, and unfortunately her inability to thoroughly sell us on the drama undercuts what little bite it might have ever had (Laith, for his part, is better, but in a much smaller role). Without much sense of fun or compelling fear, the whole enterprise quickly loses any buoyancy and sinks. Sometimes it doesn’t take a leak to down a ship, just a consistently waterlogged cargo.


Still, at this stage having Hooper get across the finish line with dignity still wholly intact is something of a miracle, and at least this isn’t too much of an embarrassment. It’s got a fairly strong control of tone, but not the imagination to do much with it. That’s especially disappointing considering the subject matter here; despite the exotic location and culturally distinct spook, the material here is as by-the-book as it comes. Nothing strikes me as distinctly Islamic about the approach to the horror, or even the character’s response to it (though the couple's’ conflicting ties to America and the UAE do provide at least a veneer or uniqueness to paper over the general blandness.) I take this as a legitimately well-intentioned attempt to broaden the usual pool of horror movie protagonists and narratives --an early aside even cheekily has an corny “ugly American” poo-pooing Middle Eastern superstition, to his fairly quick comeuppance-- but there’s no getting around it, there’s just not a lot of meat of any kind on this particular bone.

*Of course, Indonesia has been making horror movies since at least 1972’s Beranak Dalam Kubur (BIRTH IN THE TOMB) --which writer Pete Tombs claims in his book Mondo Macabro is “generally considered the first Western-style horror film produced in Indonesia,” though I can find no other confirmation of this (nor any other English-language commentary on the topic). There have been tons of Indonesian horror films since that time, and any one of them would probably have fit my purpose better than either Jinn movie, but like most Americans I routinely forget that more Muslims live in Indonesia than the entire Middle East put together and, if I remember Indonesia at all, it’s mostly due to THE ACT OF KILLING and THE RAID and the faint memory that it has something to do with Obama being a secret Muslim. So Indonesia, my apologies for sleeping on your decades of horror cinema. They’re in the queue now.
CHAINSAWNUKAH 2015 CHECKLIST!
Play it Again, Samhain


TAGLINE
Evil Wants And Heir
LITERARY ADAPTATION
No
SEQUEL
None.
REMAKE
None
DEADLY IMPORT FROM:
UAE
FOUND-FOOTAGE CLUSTERFUCK
No
SLUMMING A-LISTER
None.
BELOVED HORROR ICON
No
NUDITY?
None
SEXUAL ASSAULT?
No
GORE?
Almost none
HAUNTED HOUSE?
Haunted… high-rise?
MONSTER?
Djinn
UNDEAD?
None
POSSESSION?
No
CREEPY DOLLS?
No
EVIL CULT?
Nah
SLASHER/GIALLO?
No
TRANSMOGRIFICATION?
No
VOYEURISM?
Nah.


OBSCURITY LEVEL
Quite high, dumped after sitting on the shelves for years.
MORAL OF THE STORY
Middle East Peace is even more complicated than one would assume.
TITLE ACCURACY
There is a Djinn
ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE?
N/A






Monday, August 1, 2016

Trick Or Treat (1986)

Trick Or Treat (1986) aka Ragman aka Muerte a 33 revoluciones por minuto
Dir. Charles Martin Smith
Written by Joel Soisson, Michael S. Murphey, Rhet Topman
Starring Marc Price, Tony Fields, Lisa Orgolini, Gene Simmons




Now this is more like it. After the boring, rank incompetence of ROCKTOBER BLOOD, here, we finally have a metalsploitation movie that gets it. In fact, it may be the only metalsploitation movie that gets it. Metalsploitation, as you’ll recall, is the subgenre which marries the two least subtle forms of art ever devised by man, heavy metal music and 80’s schlock horror. There are not, in all honesty, a whole lot of these movies. Most sources seem to agree that the core of the genre consists of TERROR ON TOUR (1980), ROCKTOBER BLOOD (1984), HARD ROCK ZOMBIES (1985), TRICK OR TREAT (1986), ROCK AND ROLL NIGHTMARE (1987), SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE II (but not Part I), and BLACK ROSES (1988) and then various sources also list MONSTER DOG (1984), THE DUNGEONMASTER (1984 -- included because it has a W.A.S.P. cameo), BLOOD TRACKS (1985), DREAMANIAC (1986), VICIOUS LIPS (1986), LONE WOLF (1988), HARD ROCK NIGHTMARE (1988), PAGANINI HORROR (1989), arguably MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE (which has an all-AC/DC sore --not soundtrack, score--), HEAVY METAL MASSACRE (1989), SHOCK ‘EM DEAD (1991), DEATH METAL ZOMBIES (1995), TURBULANCE 3: HEAVY METAL (2001), more recently HAIR METAL MASSACRE (2014), DEATHGASM (2015)... actually you know what, there are a whole lot of these movies.


But I’ve seen a good chunk of that list now, and while most of them are plenty fun, they have one consistent problem. Like most exploitation movies, they don’t seem to be made by anyone with any real affection for the demographic they’re exploiting. I don’t think the makers of HARD ROCK ZOMBIES spent a lot of time listening to the hottest new hard rock albums any more than I think Golan and Globus just had such an intense personal love of breakdancing that they just had to share it with the world through BREAKIN’ (and combine it with their love of Electric Boogaloos for the sequel). That tends to leave these movies feeling a bit shallow, the work of people with a superficial sense of the most stereotypical trappings of a current trend, but not a lot of genuine understanding of its psychological underpinning and its complex internal mechanics.


Why the fuck does that matter in a genre where there’s a pretty good chance there’s gonna be a demon or something who shoots a lightning bolt out of an electric guitar and blows someone up while ripping a sick solo? Well, TRICK OR TREAT demonstrates why it does. This is, perhaps, the quintessential metalsploitation movie, and, appropriately, it’s completely full of ridiculous metal shit. But it’s also the only one of these movies I’ve seen which seems to have an actual understanding about who these goofy metalheads are, other than a market that will pretty much watch any shitty horror movie you can crank out that has Motörhead on the soundtrack, or, hell, even Fastway. And, crucially, it’s a movie which is actually about those metalheads. Virtually every other metalsploitation film to really linger on the gimmick invariably posits a band as its central protagonists. But by virtue of the intrinsic character of their art, metal musicians are larger-than-life groupie-banging Übermensches, which makes them kind of narratively inert. They already have what they want, and their cartoonish embodiment of hyper-sexualized masculine virility doesn’t allow them to seem especially vulnerable, either emotionally or physically, in a way which parlays well into a workable horror narrative. And it goes without saying, it also doesn’t make them a very relatable crowd for the average Joe.


TRICK OR TREAT craftily avoids this dilemma by shifting the focus from the demigods to their acolytes. The protagonists of this story will not be anyone who has ever strutted across a stage while thousands screamed their name in boundless devotion. It will not even be about the people who screamed in devotion. It will be about the guys who couldn’t get off work to go to the show --and even if they could, they’d have to borrow their moms’ car-- but nonetheless live an intense half-life in the world of fanzines, fantastical album art, and ubiquitous rock posters tattooed across the obliging walls of their basement bedrooms in the boring suburbs. They’re not rich, they’re not that clever, they dress poorly, nobody thinks they’re cool, and they’re definitely not getting the girl. In other words, the vast majority of actual heavy metal fans, and I say this as someone who counts himself as a heavy metal fan.


Unsurprisingly, perhaps, this makes for a movie which gets a lot more mileage from its metal trappings, and offers an experience it might just be possible to enjoy unironically, or at least only partially ironically. TRICK OR TREAT isn’t exactly THE SHINING, but compared to SHOCK ‘EM DEAD, or even delightfully tacky brain candy like ROCK AND ROLL NIGHTMARE, it’s CITIZEN (fuckin’) KANE. It’s a pretty competent effort with all the requisite metal goodies you crave, but also with, you know, characters and a plot and stuff which seems to have been written by someone with at least a passing experience with real humans. That’s not saying a lot, but in this subgenre, it’s roughly equivalent to hailing it as a masterpiece.


The plot concerns high-school metalhead Eddie Weinbauer (or, as he’d prefer to be known, to the profound disinterest of everyone else on Earth, “The Ragman”)(Marc Price, stand up comedian and Family Ties cast-member), a troubled kid who gets mercilessly bullied in high school by day and pens letters to his hero, heavy metal musician Sammi Curr (who attended Ragman’s school some years before him), at night. The bullying is broad enough to be right at home in any 80’s teen romp (the jocks trick him him to falling naked into a girl’s volleyball practice, and lock the door behind him), but right away, the movie takes his misery a little more seriously than you’d expect. “Sometimes -- actually kind of a lot lately -- I think about some pretty radical things,” he writes to Sammi. “Why not just end it? Be done with it all? Dead. Gone. But you know something? The one thing that holds me together is you. You. You did it man. You went to this fuckin’ school, and you rose above it.”  It’s pretty clear he’s thinking about suicide.


That’s some pretty heavy shit for minute five of a movie where yes, a lightning bolt from a guitar solo will cause someone to explode, but the genius of the movie is that it understands exactly why these two seemingly disparate tones are both intrinsically part of the soul of Heavy Metal music. Eddie is not a deep thinker, but he is a deep feeler. He lacks the ability to express his deep, painful feelings of rejection in a way which isn’t profoundly stupid and filled with doodles of monsters, but that doesn’t make them any less deep and painful. TRICK OR TREAT understands that metal is fundamentally stupid, but it also gets why a guy like Ragman needs it so badly. Why the grotesque morbidity, operatic instrumentation, over-the-top-and-back-around hyper-masculinity, and cartoonish aggression make so much sense to him. In that way, it’s almost a peer of SUMMER OF SAM, a movie which I think makes much the same case for the necessity of Punk Rock in the repressive, feverish 70’s urban hellscape. Obviously it’s not as good as that one (which I consider something of a misunderstood masterpiece), but it makes a similar, and similarly sympathetic, case for the necessity of Metal to the spirit-crushing homogeneous white suburbs of the 80’s.


Not that, you know, TRICK OR TREAT is any more a deep thinker than its protagonist. But still, it has the discipline to build a little bit, and just enough substance that it’s endurable before the killing starts. We meet Ragman at a pretty low point. He’s bullied in and out of school by clique-y jocks, he gets no respect from the ladies, and to top it all off, his hero, heavy metal musician Sammi Curr (Tony Fields, dancer and sometimes-actor who appeared in the Thriller and Beat It videos, and in CAPTAIN EO) has just died in a hotel fire. In desperation, he shows up at the local radio station to vent to his friend, DJ Nuke (Gene Simmons, KISS MEETS THE PHANTOM OF THE PARK). Nuke tries to gently remind him that for all his musical talent, Sammi Curr was maybe not the nicest guy in the world. “Eddie, he wasn’t a God... You didn’t know him. He was angry. He was always angry, even in high school… He did this to himself, don’t you get it? He started to believe his own hype.” Again, they don’t quite say it outright, but I take this as an implication that Curr has probably killed himself, just like Ragman’s been thinking about.


“No, it wasn’t him. He stood up for what he believed in, and they nailed him for it!” Ragman shoots back. “They tried to fuck him over everywhere he went. I know what that’s like.” This dialogue reads a little overwrought on the page, but the combination of Price’s guileless lameness and Simmons’ surprisingly kindly delivery makes it work. It’s obviously kind of a hoot to see Simmons (and later Ozzy Osbourne!) in a metalsploitation movie, but actually Simmons (three years after KISS took off their makeup, to much initial excitement and subsequent deadening disappointment) seems to really be making an effort here, he’s unexpectedly convincing and likable as this small-town radio DJ who takes enough pity on poor, rejected Eddie to treat him with a respect he probably doesn’t really deserve (I note that Nuke is the only person who calls Eddie “Ragman” like he wants them to). It’s kind of sweet.


Unfortunately this does not work out so well for anyone in the end, because Nuke offers Eddie a gift: the sole master copy of Curr’s unreleased final album. At first I thought it was funny that a radio DJ would A) have the only copy of the unreleased final album from a now-dead artist and B) hand it over for free to an angry alienated high-schooler. But actually I think it’s just evidence for how small-potatoes this band that Eddie worships so much was. Now that they’re dead, no one is pushing for the release of their final album, there’s no money to be made here. Might as well give it to a true fan.


Alas, this particular record is not so benign as Nuke thinks. After a brutal day, in which a well-meaning girl (a likeable Lisa Orgolini, “tourist #1” in HIDEOUS KINKY) invites him to a cool kid party but shows up too late to prevent him from getting humiliated, Eddie angrily throws on the record and falls asleep. But he wakes up to find it skipping backward at the end of the track (this was something which was theoretically possible on vinyl, kids, try it at home with your obnoxious hipster friend’s turntable). It seems that Curr left backwards messages on his final record. I honestly can’t really make out what he’s saying without the aid of subtitles, but the words seem to have some kind of supernatural effect. Suddenly, whenever Ragman is around electrical equipment, especially when playing his home-dubbed tape (is that legal? Hopefully the ghost of Sammi Curr isn’t the litigious type), he seems to have magical abilities to punish his enemies.


This is exhilarating at first -- emboldened by his heavy metal mojo, he throws food in his
tormentor’s face at lunch, and then nimbly tricks him into dousing the teachers’ lounge with a fire extinguisher. Primo hijinks! But things get a little more serious when the head bully (Doug Savant, minor film roles, but he’s basically been in everything to ever appear on TV, from Love Boat to JAG to Desperate Housewives to The X-Files) corners him for revenge in the high school metal shop (?). Just as he’s about the get clobbered, the bully gets his 80’s-guy tie caught in the machinery, and a convenient death spike starts ratcheting closer and closer to braining him. Ragman has to think about it for a moment, but then he steps in and saves him (to notably tepid gratitude. You’d think this would be the kind of thing that would bring them together, but nope. No fight brothers in TRICK OR TREAT). This clinches it: the backwards record has somehow imbued our hero with subtle supernatural powers to avenge himself!


Two victories in row put Ragman on cloud nine, and he zips out of his high school in fine spirits, whizzing past a historical marker dedicated to Johnson Jones Hooper, the 19th-century American Humorist known for his stories about the irrepressible Alabaman rascal Captain Simon Suggs.* Ragman might have approved of Hooper’s boundary-pushing and racy humor, which in some ways mirrors the boundary-pushing sex and violence which made his beloved heavy metal music so controversial in the 1980’s, but he doesn’t stop to read the historical marker, which is a real shame because it honestly might have given him some perspective. I mention it mostly because --thanks to the miraculous freeze-frame technology which exists today-- this landmark definitively establishes that our action is set in Wilmington, North Carolina, and that Ragman specifically attends New Hanover High School, at 1307 Market Street, Wilmington NC, 28401 (re-christened as “Lakewood High School” for the movie). Graduates of that school include longtime NBC and ABC news anchor David Brinkley and The Simpsons writer Don Payne (co-writer of the 16th-season highlight Thank God It’s Doomsday, as well as the two THOR movies)**, who would have graduated in 1982, just a short time before Ragman’s tenure there. It appears from Google Maps that a median added sometime after the movie was filmed has made it impossible to pull out of perpendicular 14th Street and onto Market Street while ignoring the stop sign, as Ragman does in the movie, so those of you hoping to recreate this classic sequence IRL might be out of luck. Probably just as well; looks like it was a pretty unsafe intersection in 1986. That’s progress for you; more safety, but less character.




Anyway, things seem to be going well for Eddie, and he has one more bit of revenge to indulge in: trick his nemesis into listening to the Sammi Curr tape backwards, which will presumably result in some spooky shenanigans. Unfortunately, the tape finds its way to the wrong target, because while the bully inexplicably abandons his bitchy girlfriend in the backseat of a car (“uh, I gotta go,” he says by way of explanation, before stepping out. Maybe he has to pee?) she gets bored and puts on the tape. Though all these mean kids hate heavy metal, the subtle sensuality of the Sammi Curr band proves too much for her, and she falls into a hypnotic sexed-up trance, allowing a mysterious green mist to awkwardly undress her (in the backseat of a car, no mean feat) and then dump a pervy demon puppet into her lap. When her paramore inexplicably returns moments later, he finds her literally fried by the power of heavy metal, her brains melting out through the smoking holes in her headphones. Admittedly a very metal way to die, but I don’t think this poor girl was cool enough to have appreciated it.


Now, here the movie comes to a turning point, because holy shit, now Ragman has killed someone.*** Granted, he couldn't really have predicted this outcome. And granted, this girl was a complete bitch. But still, she didn’t deserve to die. And when her boyfriend shows up at his house to demand answers, he stands menacing on his porch, staring the boyfriend down, while his new metal powers make the jack-o-lanterns (ah! That explains the movie's name!) burn with supernatural vigor. It works -- the bully is genuinely intimidated and flees the scene, lamely begging Ragman to stay away from him.


So here we’re getting into uncomfortable territory, at least to modern eyes. Because let’s face it, at this point Ragman is basically a school shooter, an alienated outsider lashing out violently (and, seemingly, fatally***) at everyone he perceives to be his tormentors. Yet another cinematic fantasy about disempowered young white men self-actualizing through vindictive acts of violence. We could always use a few more of those, I guess. But, blessedly, Ragman is better than that. He’s become the bully now, and immediately he knows that’s not the role he wants to play. This is getting out of hand. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone. He’s ready to call it quits with the supernatural vengeance business. Unfortunately, this is the exact moment that Sammi Curr himself appears out of the backwards-spinning, animated-80’s-electricity-spewing record. And it turns out he is angry, just like Gene Simmons said.


See, Ragman and Sammi really do have something in common: they were both treated like shit at the same high school, years apart, presumably due to their shared predilection for loud music and dressing like this:




But Sammi is back for brutal revenge against the whole world, and Ragman doesn’t want any part of it. “No wimps. No false metal.” Sammi sneers at him, when the youth protests that he doesn’t want to hurt anyone. And just like that, Ragman is suddenly the only person who can stop his former hero before he starts murdering his asshole classmates. In a way, then, we’ve got an interesting iteration of the horror premise that George “R. R.” Romero has played around with on and off when not making zombie movies, (I explored it in my “Not of the Living Dead” series some years back), where the protagonists’ most antisocial desires get acted out against their will. Ragman has every reason to hate the assholes who have made his life a living hell, and even pushed him to the point of contemplating suicide. I’m sure he’s fantasized about killing them. But when it comes down to it, even given a nudge by this idol, he knows where he stands. He’s going to be the bigger man here, he’s going to do the right thing even if no one else will.


Unfortunately, his supernaturally imbued mentor will not take no for an answer, and is extremely peeved by Ragman’s totally not metal anti-murder stance. Abandoning the kid who summoned him, Curr threatens Ragman’s nerdy friend Roger (Glen Morgan, writer/director for The X-Files and the remakes of WILLARD and BLACK CHRISTMAS, in his only acting role)**** and gets him to play the backwards tape at the big Halloween dance at school. Well, you can guess how well that goes. When the corny metal band playing the gig doesn’t rock sufficiently hard for the angry spirit, he bursts out of the amp and blows up the lead singer (Special Effects artist and later half-director of the disowned HELLRAISER: BLOODLINE Kevin Yagher) and takes over the stage. The kids think this is totally rad, which is odd because I seem to remember recently in this very movie that the popular kids hate metal and think Ragman is total freak for enjoying it. But never underestimate the power of a good stage show. Actor Tony Fields was primarily a dancer, and knows how to strike a proper metal pose. He’s got the audience in such rapture they don’t even start to panic when he starts shredding a solo and simultaneously blowing away audience members (including their principal, director Charles Martin Smith [AMERICAN GRAFFITI] in a cameo) with lightning bolts. It honestly takes about five people getting incinerated in front of everybody before the crowd starts to catch on that this is not part of the act and all hell breaks loose. In classic metalsploitation style, though, his backing band (who, remember, have no idea who this guy is and just saw him explode their singer) just keep on rockin’. Priorities, man. Curr is a total asshole who wants to murder innocent kids, but even so, he has his priorities straight, too. Even after blowing up his own band because everyone else has fled, he can’t stop shredding until the sheer power of his metal blows up the guitar he’s manhandling.




Meanwhile, Ragman is having problems of his own. He’s trying to get to school to stop the madness, but Curr gets into the electronics of his car, and starts driving it recklessly all over the place and causing havoc. Seems that Curr has somehow become a being of pure electricity, able to appear through and control any technology, though of course he prefers to stick with the musical theme. This is the movie’s one weakness, because the comparison with SHOCKER becomes unmistakable, and no one wants to be compared to SHOCKER, even positively (though this came first). Being a phantasm of pure electricity, Ragman reasons, his nemesis should be destroyed with water. And I’m sorry, I refuse to be frightened of any enemy who can be defeated by a foggy day. Lookin at you, SIGNS and NEON MANIACS.


While both electricity and corny animated lightning bolts are definitely a big, big part of metal, they’re not synonymous, and it unnecessarily muddies what was, up til this point, an absolutely pristine metalsploitation gimmick. If we’re gonna do this metalsploitation thing, I need you to stay on theme. Water does not stop metal. Death does not stop metal. Only getting a girlfriend stops metal, and even then, only sometimes. And this was a less enlightened time, when women had to pretend they actually enjoyed prolonged noodly guitar solos and feathered mullets, so even that wouldn’t work in this case. Which raises the question, what would stop the metal? I considered the possibility that the only thing that could defeat Metal would be its polar opposite, smooth jazz, but no, that’s too wussy. Wouldn’t work. Metal wins. No, I’ve given this some thought, and consulted the highest possible authorities on the subject, and come to the conclusion that there is only one way to defeat the metal, and that is with more metal. The correct ending to the movie is Ragman luring Curr to a GWAR show, where even the murderous reanimated hair-metal god is forced to admit that their brutality is superior to his own, whereupon he gives up and retires to the suburbs to occasionally tweet some embarrassingly tone-deaf right-wing talking points. That’s how you stop the metal. That, and I guess late-period reunion tours. And Nirvana. OK, there are lots of ways to stop the metal, but water is definitely not one of them, I guess that’s the point.


Anyway, despite my misgivings about the finale, (which does, in its defense, continue to at least peripherally revolve around music paraphernalia; Curr wants to take his act national by hijacking Nuke’s radio tower, and Ragman has to lure him out with a dubbed tape of his act) the movie’s a total joy overall. Could it use more gore and a more focused gimmick than “electricity slasher”? Sure,
couldn’t we all? But --quite unusually for the genre-- it also has enough other things going for it that it can afford to not quite stick the landing. It’s startlingly nice-looking, for one thing, which makes sense when you realize that the DP was none other than Academy-Award winning cinematographer Robert Elswit (THERE WILL BE BLOOD, NIGHTCRAWLER, GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK [and also GIGLI, but we won’t hold that against him]), who’d shot his first movie a mere four years earlier. First-time director Charles Martin Smith --who you remember from his frequent guest appearances on the panel game show Match Game, because you’ve forgotten that that was actually Charles Nelson Reilly-- gives a surprisingly classic, Spielbergian feel to the proceedings, allowing Ragman’s situation to escalate slowly but surely, and allowing plenty of surprisingly earnest domestic details of his life to slip in without getting bogged down in them. Smith is primarily an actor, and I suspect it’s his influence which results in the performances here --despite a pretty conventional script-- feeling a little more vivacious and genuine than you usually get from the horror genre.*****


But it’s the script itself that really puts this one over the top, I think. Not because it’s especially well-written, but because it’s perhaps the only metalsploitation movie which really gets some mileage out of the genre. You’ve got a legit respectable metal soundtrack by Fastway (featuring former Motörhead guitar “Fast” Eddie Clarke and then-unknown Irish vocalist Dave King, who, nearly a decade later, would re-emerge to much greater fame as the singer for the Celtic punk band Flogging Molly). You’ve got the idea of hidden backwards messages in metal albums which supernaturally control kids (a persistent paranoia of the anti-metal crowd, which reached its zenith in 1990, when Judas Priest would be the subject of a lawsuit alleging their 1978 cover of Better By You, Better Than Me contained hidden messages urging listeners to kill themselves, which would not be a very good business practice in my opinion). You’ve got the implication that heavy metal musicians are Satanic practitioners of the dark arts (the film opens with an incantation to Satan!). You’ve got a huge metal show which erupts into mass carnage a la Metalocalypse, scary faces coming out of a “Schall” halfstack amp, and a vaguely defined fear that devil music will take to the airwaves and destroy civilization, or at least the morals of the youth. Like with BLACK ROSES, I initially found it odd that a movie which is clearly targeted at metalheads would so happily play up all the worst --and in retrospect, most hilarious misplaced-- fears about the genre, but as longtime friend of the site Dan P reminded me, of course they had that stuff in there: metalheads secretly want nothing more than to believe that deep down, Tipper Gore was right, metal truly is evil. How are you supposed to feel dangerous and anti-establishment otherwise?



But TRICK OR TREAT wisely plays it both ways; although Sammi Curr really is everything your momma warned you about in heavy metal, Ragman himself is a total sweetie, unfairly targeted for abuse because of people’s misconceptions about metalheads. And if you really wanted to know where the movie stands on the dangers of heavy metal, look no further than Ozzy Osbourne (GHOSTBUSTERS 2016) in a cameo as a Televangelist railing against the improprieties of the genre he helped create. “This could kick you off into becoming an absolute pervert!” he huffs. Ozzy’s not the world’s most convincing actor, but you know he’s done enough of these stupid hysterical talk shows that I’m sure he didn’t need a script to parrot all the absurd fearmongering accusations leveled against his music. And TRICK OR TREAT knows them too, and knows that our shared knowledge of both the hype and the reality is where the fun really lies. That’s the charm here, really. Like any true metalhead, it gets its kicks through pervy sex and over-the-top violence. But it gets its heart from its good-natured certainty that it’s all in good fun. Sammi Curr never understood that, but Ragman does. Particularly given the context here, I can’t help but recall the scene in BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, where shock-metal maven Marilyn Manson (“Porno Star #1” in LOST HIGHWAY) --widely accused of inspiring the then-shocking, now-sadly-routine school shooting in Littleton, Colorado-- is asked what he would say to the kids at Columbine. “I wouldn’t say a single word to them, I would listen to what they have to say.” he says. In a genre which spends a lot of time mining the most superficially shocking ephemera of heavy metal music, TRICK OR TREAT is a rare metalsploitation movie which actually takes his advice. The result is one of the most unabashed love letters to 80’s metal the horror genre has ever produced -- a film with real heart. And, also an exploding guitar solo.


Death to false metal, indeed.


* Though Hooper was born in North Carolina, he became famous in (and for writing about) Alabama, where he spent the majority of his professional career. He has another historical marker in Dadeville, Alabama, which actually seems like a more appropriate place for it.


** He also wrote segments for TREEHOUSE OF HORROR XI and XII, so maybe he and Ragman could have been friends. Granted, the segments he wrote are parodies of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and, of all fool things, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, so maybe it wouldn’t be a perfect match. Oh well, at least the second one turned out pretty good. Woah, Payne died of bone cancer in 2013, at the age of 48. That’s a horrible bit of trivia which you now know.


*** Actually I guess not, because the boyfriend later tells Ragman that she’s in the hospital, that she could have been killed. This feels like something maybe added in at the last minute to make it more palatable, but maybe she just didn’t really need her brain too badly and could afford to have it melted. It being the 80’s, the icky demonic sexual assault is less of a problem as far as the script is concerned.


**** I note that Morgan’s writing partner James Wong hired "Lead Bully" Doug Savant for a major role in his 10th-season X-Files episode Founder’s Mutation. I wonder if Morgan remembered him from their work together on this? Oh, and Charles Martin Smith also had a guest role on the X-Files, early on in season 2.  


***** TRICK OR TREAT is the only horror movie Smith ever directed, but he would go on to something far more terrifying: in 1997, he directed AIR BUD, the “there’s no rule that says a golden retriever can’t play basketball!” opus which has spawned more sequels than fucking HELLRAISER. And yet poor TRICK OR TREAT languishes without even a proper DTV sequel. For shame!

By the way, speaking of false metal, this is the DVD cover they went with during the brief period it was in print. You'll note that both these images are from decades later, and that the two people pictured here have a combined 3 minutes of screentime total, and one is just on a TV the main character (credited third) is watching. And also I don't know what that building is in the background that's on fire. And the only skull in the movie is on the cover of Megadeth's Killing Is My Business.. and Business is Good. But other than those few details its completely accurate to the movie.


CHAINSAWNUKAH 2015 CHECKLIST!
Play it Again, Samhain


TAGLINE
What are you afraid of? It's only rock and roll… is what’s on my version of this poster (yes, I have an original theatrical poster for this movie up in my house) but a more literal alternate tagline is If you think Sammi Curr looks like he's been to hell and back... it's because he has! Which is pretty much the same one as ROCKTOBER BLOOD, which, now that I think of it, has a similar plot point or two.
LITERARY ADAPTATION
No
SEQUEL
None, which is just awful.
REMAKE
None
DEADLY IMPORT FROM:
USA
FOUND-FOOTAGE CLUSTERFUCK
No
SLUMMING A-LISTER
None. But you gotta like a movie with cameos from Gene Simmons, Ozzy Osbourne, Kevin Yagher, and Charles Martin Smith. I mean, not many movies can claim that kind of oddness.
BELOVED HORROR ICON
Kevin Yagher?
NUDITY?
Yup
SEXUAL ASSAULT?
Via demonic green mist. It’s pretty mild though, and she seems kinda into it.
GORE?
Surprisingly little. The people who get blown up seem to just kind of vaporize. Resurrected Sammi Curr’s gnarly facial scars are probably the goriest thing in the movie. But don’t let that bring you down, he does reach through a TV and grab Alice Nunn’s body and burn her to a tiny crisp in one of the film’s ballsiest and most bizarre scenes.
HAUNTED HOUSE?
Haunted… record?
MONSTER?
No
UNDEAD?
Ghostly Rock N’ Roller!
POSSESSION?
No
CREEPY DOLLS?
No
EVIL CULT?
It looks like Sammi Curr has been up to something vaguely satanic, and the movie begins with an incantation to Satan, but it’s pretty vague about it. However, I think all movies should begin with a Satanic incantation, like how they close ballgames with the national anthem, or whatever it is they do.
SLASHER/GIALLO?
Yes, technically a slasher, probably, at least in structure, though the electricity gimmick means instead of knives there’s animated lightning.
TRANSMOGRIFICATION?
No
VOYEURISM?
Eh, nah, not really.


OBSCURITY LEVEL
I honestly don’t really have a sense of this. I never heard of it before this October, if that means anythng.
MORAL OF THE STORY
Never meet your heroes.
TITLE ACCURACY
TRICK OR TREAT is an absolutely ludicrous title for this movie which is coincidentally set over Halloween, though there’s very, very little reference to the season other than a few Jack-O-Lanterns and a costumed “Halloween Dance.” I prefer the German title “Ragman,” although it sounds kind of like a low-rent superhero movie. But I think Spain has the best title: Muerte a 33 revoluciones por minuto or, Death at 33 revolutions per minute. Now THAT’s a good album title.
ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE?
N/A