Blood Rage (1987)
The self-aware horror film genre hit paydirt in 1996 with Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson’s thrilling box office success, Scream. Almost overnight, those moronic teens, whose increasingly poor decisions would lead to their eventual obliteration, knew the score. Oh, don’t worry, they’re still dumb as a sack of hammers and get murdered in wonderfully awful ways, but at least they live in a world where slasher films exist. There’s a key difference between meta-horror and self-aware horror. While the two can co-mingle, the smartest of filmmakers have found subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways to approach tired material and add fun twists that feel both fresh and familiar at the same time. Joe Dante is a master meta-filmmaker, and with good reason. As his “The Movies That Made Me” podcast co-host Josh Olsen has stated on numerous occasions: “Joe’s seen everything.” With that kind encyclopedic knowledge, no wonder films like The Howling, Piranha, Matinee, and Gremlins 2: The New Batch tinker with an audience’s expectations while firmly following the tried-and-true tropes of the genre. In those films, Dante uses cutting-edge special effects, clever writing, and outstanding performers like Dee Wallace-Stone and John Goodman to deliver the winking dialogue just right. But what happens when filmmakers attempt to parody an already tired subgenre without the benefit of skilled performers? Well, you’d probably get Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (1988), but if you took a few steps up in quality, it’s more likely you’d get the rare Thanksgiving-themed slasher Blood Rage (1987).
Director John W. Grissmer has only directed two features in his very brief film career and the first was the nasty potboiler Scalpel (1977, aka False Face). It’s a great Southern Gothic psychological thriller that’s almost too clever for its own good; piling plot twists and double crosses on top of one another. The writing is sophisticated and it’s gorgeously shot by future Oscar-nominee Edward Lachman. While many talented filmmakers are guilty of directing dunderheaded movies despite having made intelligent features beforehand (think J. Lee Thompson going from The Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear to Firewalker), their reasons tend to hew toward money or miscalculation.
Considering Scalpel’s elegance, I have to assume Grissmer was fully aware, and I hope Zapped! writer Bruce Rubin (credited here as Richard Lamden) was as well, that Blood Rage, originally filmed in 1983/1984 under the title Complex, was indeed a parodical take on a subgenre that was nearing the end of its golden age. The fact that one of its alternate titles, other than the boring Nightmare at Shadow Woods, is simply Slasher shows that Grissmer and co. were obviously approaching this blood-drenched, holiday-centric massacre with tongue firmly in cheek. Unfortunately, the cast is ill-equipped to walk that tricky line between genuine terror cliches and self-aware spoof as they navigate the tale of a delusional mother and her twin sons, one of whom is a homicidal maniac and the other a poor sap who went to a mental hospital for his brother’s bloody handiwork.
The big draw for any slasher film is the gore. We’re not there to be moved by the emotional journey of the tough heroine or whether the nerdy outcast will gain acceptance with what’s left of the butchered asshole cool kid clique. No, we want to see people get the fuck killed out of them. Oscar-nominated makeup artist Ed French (Star Trek VI, Vampire’s Kiss, T2) cut his teeth with the Tim Kincaid crew (Breeders, Necropolis) before getting the chance to, as he put it in the Arrow video supplemental interview Man Behind the Mayhem: “create something with an operatic sensibility that was way over-the-top and extreme.” Moving down from New York to Blood Rage’s location shoot in Jacksonville, Florida (don’t worry, he’d be back in NYC for Mutant Hunt and Riot on 42nd St.), he put together his makeup lab and set to work; making certain the wildly bloody mayhem would be much more actor rather than dummy-based. He was determined to one-up each kill: “I didn’t want to scrimp on subtlety.”
Some of the best kills do have a splattery goodness to them which adds to the belief that the film isn’t meant to be taken seriously, despite the sadistic way in which these hapless apartment complex residents are dispatched. A severed hand continues to move and even crushes a beer can. A woman’s chest has been impaled with a machete in what looks like a credit card slot (hope there isn’t a skimmer in there as well). One of the most impressive tricks is an Exorcist-inspired slashing in which some fishing line yanks a bit of fake skin off of a nubile babe’s face, simulating a long, bloody cut. His work is a highlight of the film. He initially had Tarantino-esque ambitions as an actor, but his lackluster work as “rich daddy” Bill in this film pretty much forced him to retire from the thespian life.
It’s certainly a boon for a film production to snag a name actress for their little horror effort. In the great tradition of “hag horror” acting, Louise Lasser, as the seriously unbalanced Maddy, gives it her all. This no-holds-barred performance from the Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman TV star and Woody Allen’s former wife/leading lady is certainly unique. Perhaps too unique and unhinged as onset difficulties caused Grissmer to abandon the production at one point. It was only through the persuasion of producer Marianne Kanter (a former actress, The Pawnbroker) that he returned to the shoot and contended with Lasser’s bizarre intensity. Her performance as a semi-Mother From Hell is a curious mix of drama and comedy. She’s not going for a sneering, evil quality like Susan Tyrrell in Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (1981) or a high-and-mighty operatic turn like Piper Laurie in Carrie (1976). Rather, she plays Maddy as a bundle of nervous energy and naked vulnerability.
Lasser nearly always appears on the verge of madness. She claimed that she “took wide latitude” with the character, adding an “oddness” like sitting on the floor eating leftovers directly out of an open fridge. She later admitted to being embarrassed by her over-acting and confessed to her uncertainty of what was happening from scene-to-scene, since most of her sequences are solo pieces and the action takes place outside of her apartment. This does somewhat lend itself to the character, so she’s at least being philosophical about it. She hilariously describes being unprepared for playing a scene where she discovers her boyfriend’s dismembered body, which slumps over, revealing a split skull and goopy brains inside. “I don’t know if any human part of the movie succeeds. You’ve just got to hope that it’s going to come out.” Although she’s referring to her approach in playing Maddy, this turn of phrase could easily be applied to the rocky road Blood Rage took to even see the light of day.
There are currently three cuts available on the Arrow Blu-Ray release set. One is the 82-minute restored version, which is the most pristine and accessible. Then there’s the “composite” version, which includes footage from the original, bloodier VHS release. The watered-down theatrical cut, titled Nightmare at Shadow Woods, was released on DVD and is available in a 79-minute version. It’s iffy whether the film could’ve succeeded considering its competition around the mid-80's. If released in 1984, it might’ve had to battle A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, Silent Night, Deadly Night, Children of the Corn, Gremlins, C.H.U.D., or even the box office juggernaut that was Ghostbusters. 1985 would’ve been even worse, with fantastic alternate offerings like Demons, The Return of the Living Dead, Fright Night, Cat’s Eye, Lifeforce, Day of the Dead, Phenomena, The Stuff, and the masterful Re-Animator. Oh, and The Mutilator, I suppose. I guess if you were to compare The Mutilator with Blood Rage, at least Blood Rage shoots everything in super bright light and knows it, while Buddy Cooper’s gaffe-wielding slasher insists that those very well-lit middle-aged teens are pawing around in pitch black darkness. Blood Rage still tanked in 1987 and that was the year Blood Harvest came out.
A creepy, moaning soundscape gives way to Richard Einhorn’s (The Prowler, Eyes of a Stranger, Don’t Go in the House) outstanding synth score. It rocks and strikes just the right tone of 80’s pop and horror aesthetics as we’re plunked down into a classic drive-in setting where the horror movie du jour is “The House that Cried Murder.” Everybody's getting hot and heavy in their car, thanks to condom salesman Ted Raimi. Lasser wears her hair down, with a flower stuck in it, in what feels like a desperate attempt to look younger. She makes out with a man whose shirt appears to be the map to dry land. Meanwhile, her two little twin tykes Terry and Todd (Keith and Russell Hall) sneak out of the station wagon. Terry snags a hatchet out of an uncovered truck and proceeds to hack apart a douchebag’s face after the gentlemen in question appears slightly annoyed that his sweet, sweet lovemaking was interrupted. “Get outta here, creep!” he flatly intones. Terry chops and leaves deep cuts in the actor’s face (haha, I called that guy an actor!). Blood pours out, ruining a fine bucket of popcorn and causing his nude companion to flee from the vehicle. “The House that Cried Murder” must be a fine piece of entertainment because no one does anything even though a naked woman, covered in blood, just ran screaming from the drive-in. Finally, Maddy finds her mommy hat and locates the boys, just after Terry slathers blood on Todd and sticks the hatchet in the traumatized boy’s hand. As always, ten years must pass. Did Bruce Rubin rent Sledgehammer (1983) earlier that year?
In a bizarre choice, a scene between Maddy and Todd’s psychiatrist, played by Kanter after an actress failed to show up, is cut so we hear the doctor’s inner monologue while the increasingly heated conversation devolves into Lasser screaming, “My sons aren’t guinea pigs!” Todd wanders in and she presents him with her usual gift, a single slice of pie. It being Thanksgiving, she’s brought him pumpkin pie, which he proceeds to squish between his fist. He’s super pissed because he’s finally begun to remember what happened that fateful night, but he takes his anger out on what’s left of the pie. “Fuck you, pie!” he practically screams as he splatters it against the wall. Todd and Terry are both played by Mark Soper (White Oleander, The World According to Garp), whose dual performance is quite good as he finds subtle ways to delineate between the two characters. Compared to the other performances in this film, he’s practically Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers (1988).
Terry is the All-American boy who loves rocking those 80’s short shorts and refuses to put his damn collar down. He’s studying psychology and maintains a chaste relationship with his gal Karen (Julie Gordon, Super Fuzz). The film cuts very hard to several laughing faces, lingering far too long for comfort and giving a major implication of what Grissmer’s intentions are. These are also the whitest sons of bitches I’ve ever seen. Blonde as far as the eye can see. Just the caucasity of it all is enough to make someone shit out the Osmonds. Lasser struts around in a cleavage-highlighting dress and announces her engagement to Brad (William Fuller, Panther), which is apparently all Terry needs to trigger his homicidal urges. There’s very little in terms of style here, which is surprising, considering Grissmer’s excellent use of transitions and hallucinogenic imagery in Scalpel. Terry casually mentions that his brother Todd has escaped from a mental hospital and then asks for the green beans.
The film’s concept is a clever one, I’ll give it that. While Terry stalks about killing everyone and everything, Todd, he of the escaped mental patient variety, is the suspected murderer. The first to go is Brad, whom I assume Maddy is only sleeping with so she can live rent-free, since he runs the apartment complex. An absolutely insane and inexplicable plot detail is that although Brad merely heads over to his office to get some work done, while listening to church radio and loading a pistol (ah, America!), Maddy acts as though he’s miles away and the only way she can contact him is via phone. Good luck with that as he’s taken out by the aforementioned severed hand and split skull technique.
The doctor and her bohunk assistant, whom I assume she’s sleeping with and who I kept expecting to start eating the decorative corn on Maddy’s door, show up to search for Todd, armed with a tranquilizer gun. Speaking of this infamous gun, there’s a wild inconsistency. The gun is clearly black with a long barrel, yet later when Terry picks it up, it’s become a silver revolver deal. Unless they had a spare, bullet-based gun, this makes absolutely no sense. While the doctor heads into the woods, he takes a minute to get high, which apparently works instantaneously since his eyes are half-closed the moment he tokes up. Terry shoves the machete through his tummy and takes a long, satisfying drag on the joint. The doctor gets an outstanding death scene, with a gruesome effect of being cut in half and her entrails pouring out of her upper torso. Her separated legs flail about nearby.
Terry has a weird aversion to sex and alcohol, although his use of marijuana either makes him open-minded or a hypocrite. A new gal pal claims her major is “partying,” but all Terry wants to do is watch the boob tube, just not hers. Maddy pours herself a giant glass of wine and fusses about her apartment, cleaning and scrubbing to distract herself from the news of her mad son’s escape. Karen runs into Todd, whose main difference in appearance is a disheveled mop of hair that looks like he applied too much Soul-Glo. She lays it out and tells “Terry” that “I want you to make love to me.” Todd reveals himself and claims he’s “never kissed a girl. You seem nice.” Rather than running off and calling the police, she just runs off. Why, you might ask? Get on the floor, eat your damn leftovers, and stop asking silly questions, stupid!
After Maddy takes a little siesta on the bed, where she looks like Princess Leia if she let herself go...so you know, latter-day Carrie Fisher (sorry), she can’t get hold of Brad on the phone. Rather than simply walking the 5 minutes (or less) to his office, she calls the operator, whom she thinks can somehow do something. She proceeds in telling this poor lady her life story, including details about the pumpkin pie. She gets more and more hysterical, shrieking “Get me my BOYFRIEND!” Later, the operator appears to have hung up since she hears a dial tone, but I believe it’s just the operator screaming for this insane woman to stop.
Terry continues his killing spree, simultaneously acting innocent with one of his mook, Brooklyn-based buddies, then finding a totally random assortment of kitchen aids that he uses to stab his pal in the neck. Covered in blood and ruining his Eddie Bauer polo, he gets to utter the film’s most famous bit of dialogue, “That’s not cranberry sauce.” There’s a knock on the door of a woman who’s been busy romancing Ed French’s character. I imagine her inner-monologue echoing Wayne Campbell’s simple statement: “If it’s a severed head, I’m going to be very upset.” It is indeed a severed head, I’m afraid, which is hanging in front of the door; viscera dribbling from French’s exposed, Styrofoam skull.
Seemingly random, useless bits are introduced, including semi-adults playing video games with impossible sound effects and a prank involving horror makeup that’s way too sophisticated for novices.
Karen finally figures things out and Terry slowly stalks her around the complex, occasionally flailing the limbs of his victims about and getting hit in the dick with a phone for his trouble. She even picks up a random baby, whose mother has the credit card slot wound, and she bafflingly sits down at the edge of a pool to care for it. The chase is slow as molasses but Todd and Terry finally come face-to-face, or as much as possible since the Todd body double is laughably larger and girthier than the slim Soper. They wrassle a bit in the pool and in a slightly creepy wide shot (thanks to the light reflections from the pool), Maddy wanders in and plugs her murderous son.
She sobs and holds her beloved son close, muttering all the while “I love you so much. I’ve hurt you so much. It’s us again. It’s just us again. No one’s ever gonna separate us again. You’re my whole life. I don’t wanna live without you. You’re my world. It’s safe here. We don’t need anybody else. You’re such a good boy. You’re the bestest. You’re the bestest of the best. It’s just us, Terry. He’s gone. Todd is gone.” The music has hilariously and heroically swelled during the entire monologue , but this final, shocking bit of dialogue brings the house down. Todd manages to say “I’m Todd.” Maddy absolutely crumbles and they both repeat “I’m Todd!” over and over again. She picks up the gun and shoots herself in the head. This chilling finale is fascinating as well as frustrating since it’s so dark that one is forced to question whether the film was a parody after all. I’m still firmly in the parody camp, but this ending is astoundingly fucked up.
The film has a surprisingly low-level of forward momentum. This is quite shocking since editor Michael R. Miller has some spectacular credits, including work with the Coens (Miller’s Crossing, Raising Arizona) before they adopted the pseudonym of Roderick Jaynes to edit their own films. Other work includes Patty Hearst, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, Orgazmo, Ghost World, and Anthony Hopkins’ bizarre Slipstream. Locations are repeated ad nauseum and any scenes not involving bloodshed are boring as all get out. Most scenes are shot in wide, mundane masters and the staging is stilted, almost theatrical. Scenes are lit so brightly that they appear flat, particularly in the very Floridian apartment, with its forest green shag rug and the presumably heavy stench of cigarettes. Cinematographer Richard E. Brooks also shot the cult kid fantasy short Creating Rem Lazar (1989) and, according to his IMDB page: “Known to work with film students for a special price, if he likes the subject. Very good and fast on lighting, though it is important to be very specific in directions, as this is one rare cinematographer who does not satisfy his ego by inventing a style of his own without being asked for it.” Yeesh.
The film is rightly beloved by horror fans due to its copious gore and decent amount of nudity. It’s also somewhat important as arguably the best Thanksgiving-themed slasher film, but looking at the competition, which is pretty much some unknown horror flicks and the Thankskilling series, it doesn’t really have to try hard. If only Eli Roth would make his Grindhouse trailer for Thanksgiving into a feature. There are so many what-ifs as far as the final product goes. What if the actors were better? What if the direction were more dynamic? What if the film had been released during the tail-end of the Slasher Golden Age? In an interview, Soper expressed shock that the film has any fans at all. Regardless, Blood Rage is an intermittently fun horror flick that casual viewers may find inept and boring, but horror aficionados will lap up like Louise Lasser attacking the bottom of a bowl of cranberry sauce.