Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Blogorium Review: Don't Go in the Woods

  M. Night Shyamalan once famously tried to "re-brand" The Happening as a "B Movie" after audiences (and critics) had a chance to see how terribly inept it was. At one point, I had to prove to a friend of a friend that it wasn't the case by showing them the special features on the Blu-Ray, which has Shyamalan lauding his cast and crew on what a terrifying thriller they were making, one that would open people's eyes. Now, I suppose, it's possible that when he saw the finished cut, he revised his strategy, but given his typical stance of believing his turds are golden eggs, I think it was studio pressure to salvage his eco-disasterpiece. But that's just my theory. The Happening does all of the heavy lifting by itself - you decide if this was supposed to be schlocky or just ended up that way as a result of gross incompetence.

 What bearing does this have on Don't Go in the Woods (sometimes with "...Alone!" at the end)? As I learned after watching this 1981 slasher movie, director James Bryan intended the film to be a comedy, and not just a "me too" entry into the subgenre. That would put the film in the same company as Student Bodies, but the problem with this characterization of Don't Go in the Woods is that it's almost impossible to tell while watching the film. Bryan seems (well, seemed - I won't pretend I'm familiar with his filmography) to lack any basic semblance of pacing, editing, or sensible shot composition, and somehow makes a movie that's barely 81 minutes feel twice that long. It doesn't work as a comedy or as a slasher film, and yet, is oddly appealing in fits and (blood) spurts.

 One wouldn't be mistaken in assuming there's no plot to be had during the first twenty minutes of Don't Go in the Woods, as Bryan haphazardly jumps from one hastily cobbled together "kill" to the next, in rapid succession. Other than the fact that someone - or some thing - is hunting anyone who wanders into the forest outside of Park City, Utah, there's no connective tissue whatsoever that can be identified. Bryan's notion of setting up a "kill" is to throw a character on screen, without any sense of context, cut to hand-held "POV" shoots of the murderer, and then go straight for the gore. If you get a kick out of seeing the camera run into branches, lose balance, and then unexpectedly cut to a guy losing his arm, Don't Go in the Woods has you covered. We eventually learn that he was an ornithologist (McCormick Dalton), which is relevant in no real capacity, but that is the only one of Bryan's procession of victims we have any sense of back story for.

 Also wandering around in the woods, presumably just to be murdered, are a girl running around (Alma Ramos), a newlywed couple in their customized shag van (pun intended) (Carolyn Braza and Frank Millen), an artist (Cecilia Fannon), a tourist (Dale Angell), his mother (Ruth Grose), a fisherman (Hank Zinman), and a guy in a wheelchair (Gerry Klein) who is, inexplicably, slowly rolling himself up a dirt road. His struggle, including at least two times when his chair tips over, are agonizingly cross-cut with the final showdown between our heroes, the police, and the killer. For the record, my favorite theory about the killer prior to discovering it was just a Killbilly was that it was a "bear with a knife," which is really what it looks like when the artist dies and her toddler-aged daughter disappears.

 Yes, I did mention "heroes," didn't I? Eventually, in the midst of all of this random killing for killing's sake, we do actually meet the four twenty-somethings that one expects to find in a slasher movie: Craig (James P. Hayden) Ingrid (Mary Gail Artz), Joanne (Angie Brown), and Peter (Jack McClelland). Craig is leading the expedition out to a cabin in the woods - relax, we never see it, and it is never mentioned again once the killer shows up - with the rest in tow. He's the natural leader, Boy Scout type, and Peter is the "tenderfoot" who makes mistakes and resents Craig. Ingrid and Joanne are, um, the girls. One of them has short hair and the other one doesn't. To be honest, without looking at them in the movie, I can't remember which is which, but I think Ingrid is the one who lives at the end (SPOILER). Since I'm SPOILING, this breaks with the at-the-time nascent concept of "Final Girl" theory by also having Peter survive, but Craig and Joanne are long dead. Like the rest of the murders, there's no real rhyme or reason for this decision.

 I should mention that in the midst of hiking to a cabin, they spend the night in the woods twice, despite the fact that the cabin is close enough to walk to "by mid-day tomorrow." The killer isn't even stalking them at that point - he's instead murdering another group of campers (Leon Brown, Jr. and Linda Brown, although I could have sworn there were more people). It might have been a clever "bait-and-switch" if it were possible to tell what the hell was going on in Don't Go in the Woods. By that point, Bryan is stretching the story out in all possible directions, also including the morbidly obese Sheriff (Ken Carter). He's responding to the missing ornithologist report, until he just decides to give up in the middle of flying over the woods. No, really, that's what happens. He requests a plane to fly over, in the hopes of seeing, um, something, and then tells the pilot they'll never find the guy, he probably went home. But don't worry, the police and a local militia will be back for the "big" finale.

 Perhaps Bryan's notion that Don't Go in the Woods being a "comedy" comes from the sensory overload of ridiculous, bloody murders that make up the first half of the film. If so, he failed miserably, because there's nothing particularly comical about having the tourist's dead body lying on a rock just above two frolicking teenagers - a shot he returns to after killing the mother. There's nothing particularly tragic or ironic about it, either, because the composition is so in-artful. The closest thing to outright comical happens during the honeymoon - and honestly, you can't even tell they're married until you see it on the side of the van - when, after the couple is slashed thoroughly, the killer decides to flip the van over, into a ravine. And it explodes. I laughed at the audacity, and again when somehow nobody noticed that this happened, despite what is clearly a crowded forest.

 To be fair, I go into most slasher films with a healthy suspension of disbelief. The ridiculous nature of murder set pieces were part and parcel of the subgenre, even in 1981. I can even put up with sometimes amateurish execution, as long as the payoff is worthwhile. What's difficult to reconcile about Don't Go in the Woods is the stunning lack of tension. We barely have time to register that someone is on camera before they're being stalked and summarily slaughtered, and none of it is done with any degree of flair. There's no suspense in the film because there's no sense of geography for the characters, or any attempt to set up anything. If you'd like to make a case that the killer's M.O. resembles the Texas Chain Saw Massacre (and his cabin is clearly designed to) and therefore is somehow meant to make it "random," I'd listen, but then you'd have to explain the ending as something less coherent than "repeating the cycle." What begins as a slasher film slowly devolves into a mishmash of The Hills Have Eyes, but with random asides not unlike the police subplot in The Last House on the Left. And I somehow doubt that Wes Craven or Tobe Hooper would be happy to have their films compared to Don't Go in the Woods.

 And yet, I did say I kind of enjoyed it, didn't I? Well, that is true. It's an excruciatingly boring movie from the halfway point onward, but the random killings at the beginning are amusing in and of themselves. It's a little bit like that DVD, Boogeymen: The Killer Compilation, which was just clips of famous monster movies without any semblance placement within their respective films, crammed together. It's not the ideal way to watch a slasher, but the sheer willingness to throw narrative away and just randomly murder people with no rhyme or reason is amusing. And I reiterate: whether intentional or not, the fact that the killer pushes a van off of a cliff (sideways) is humorous. Some of Don't Go in the Woods is so stupid that you can't help but chuckle. The "score," by H. Kingsley Thurber (Frozen Scream), is a synth-heavy cacophony of "was that the right choice?" Every now and then he provides the punch line for a joke, which is funny in all the wrong ways, especially for the musical "fart" that accompanies Peter soiling himself.

 So, in fairness, while Don't Go in the Woods is frequently an interminable bore, there are moments of sheer stupidity, of incompetence in the direction and writing (how could I leave out Garth Eliasson, he who wrote the story and the script?), that will make you chuckle. If it had, oh, a sense of pacing, let alone a better sense of one, I would be inclined to recommend it, because some of the kills are decent, and before you know what the killer is, there's a sense of baffling confusion. As it stands, I would only recommend it to slasher die-hards who have exhausted most of the better offerings. Don't Go in the Woods isn't bottom of the barrel - it is watchable, if nothing else - but you might find yourself struggling against seeing how much time you have left.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Blogorium Review: The Last of Sheila

 The Last of Sheila comes from an auspicious collection of talent to be as obscure as it is. Directed by Herbert Ross (Footloose, Funny Lady, Play It Again, Sam) with a screenplay by Steven Sondheim and Anthony Perkins(!), and starring James Coburn, Racquel Welch, James Mason, Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, and a very young Ian McShane, the film is a whodunit of sorts, framed as a "revenge" story. It's relative obscurity - I only discovered it existed when it played as the second half of a double feature with Murder By Death and a friend mentioned it - might be credited to its length, or the cavalier way it dismisses a serious revelation about one of the main character (when it really shouldn't). The Last of Sheila never quite gels into a great murder mystery, but as a lark among friends or as a curio of 70s cinema, it's a fun curio.

 Clinton Green (Coburn) has invited his friends to join him on a yacht for a European tour and a "game." Many of his guest haven't seen each other since the Hollywood party one year ago that ended with the accidental death of Sheila (Yvonne Romain), Clinton's wife. However, they're lured back in by Clinton's promise to sell them the rights to her story as a film. Assembled on the yacht are the combination of screenwriter Tom (Benjamin), agent Christie (Dyan Cannon), director Philip (Mason), and actress Alice (Welch), along with Lee (Joan Hackett) and Anthony (McShane), Tom and Alice's significant others'. Green, known for his pranks, has designed The Sheila Green Memorial Gossip Game, wherein each player is assigned a card with a "secret" on it. As they travel around the south of France, Green will give them a clue that leads the players to a location with one of the secrets, and the person who finds it first gets a point. As his motley crew of contestants learn, each "secret" refers to another player, and one of them may, in fact, be Sheila's killer.

 (SPOILERS from here on out, unless otherwise noted)

 We only see two of the scavenger hunts based on the clues, because at the end of the second stage of the game, Clinton winds up deceased, with the perpetrator almost certainly back aboard the yacht along with the other contestants. Was it the Shoplifter? The Hit and Run Driver? The Homosexual? The Ex-Convict? The Little Child Molester? Wait... did I say Little Child Molester? Alas, I did, and while every other person involved in a secret crime has a monologue and subsequent conversation to address the shaming of their deed, somehow Ross, Perkins, and Sondheim sidestep the fact that a major character - in fact, the person who solves the mystery - is a child molester. A Little child molester, in order to fit into Green's scheme (the "secrets spell out S-H-E-I-L-A), and it's abundantly clear who it is when you remember how the character is introduced. It's no wonder his daughter is an alcoholic (the original card, which is replaced by a different one via Clinton's killer). See how quickly I transitioned away from it? I wasn't even trying to, because one of the main characters is a child molester, and it's handled no more delicately than by pushing it aside as though that's not important to the mystery.

 And, okay, it's not central to the mystery of who killed Sheila (which Clinton already knew), or necessarily who killed Clinton, but it's such a weird thing to gloss over when everybody else is raked over the coals because of having been in prison or being in a loveless marriage. It's even weirder when the discrepancy of why it's Little Child Molester and not just Child Molester: that turns out to be another part of Clinton's game. I don't even want to venture a guess how the "Little Child Molester" scavenger hunt would have played out, given how the first two were structured. Basically Clinton all but gives away who the card refers to when the first person arrives.

 His death happens through an unnecessarily elaborate search through a monastery, culminating in a disguised Clinton hiding in a confessional booth. Even if you're paying close attention to the scene when it happens, odds are you won't be able to figure out who the real killer was, and it isn't until you've had three flashbacks or so that everything adds up, and that's while the Child Molester is explaining it to the killer. Sorry, his first scene in the movie involves a little girl sitting on his lap! But, you know, no big deal. At least he wasn't the Informer. The ending is actually clever and more than a bit cynical, but The Last of Sheila spends nearly an hour sussing out who murdered Green, even if you noticed the murder weapon and got past the red herring(s). Much too much time is spent being suspicious of each other, while no real investigating happens. And then there's a fake-out "drawing room scene," resolution, and a second, actual "drawing room scene" followed by the ending. I'll give The Last of Sheila this: it has a great closing line, but it takes far too long to get there. Once Coburn exits the film, Mason and Benjamin do most of the heavy lifting, with the rest of the cast just hanging around.

 (SPOILERS mostly done)

 Sondheim and Perkins based Clinton Green's game on scavenger hunts they hosted in New York, and the film has the quality of something created as a lark. The mystery within a mystery, and the way they toy with the expectations of audiences is inventive, to a point, but it's a detour-heavy affair that gets more mileage from its cast and location. The Last of Sheila is a nice looking film, but it would be hard not to when set in the south of France. Having watched it, I can understand why I wasn't aware of its existence until very recently, but if you don't mind investing two hours for a debatable payoff, it's worth checking out. Fans of Coburn, Mason, or even McShane who are curious to see if he ever looked young (short answer: nope), will get a kick out of seeing them together, along with 1970s "That Guy" Richard Benjamin (if you've seen Love at First Bite, he's the romantic foil for George Hamilton).

 If you're a real trivia buff, also note that Joel Schumacher (Batman Forever) was the costume designer, and the closing song is performed by Bette Midler. Again, it's an impressive assemblage for a film that maybe ought to be better than it ultimately is. Then again, as a lark, it's a star-laden affair, in front of and behind the camera. Save it for a dark and stormy night, and kick back with a bottle of wine.