Friday, March 14, 2008

"Folks At Red Wolf Inn" (1972): or, "Pardon Me, But Your Head Is In My Freezer"

If you're old enough to remember the early days of cable TV and the various superstations that started showing up on East-coast US cable systems -- that is to say, not only can you remember what it was like when a VCR was the standard home video player, you can remember what it was like when there was no such thing as a VCR -- then you were probably lucky enough to be exposed to a lot of obscure horror films that you might have ignored otherwise, appearing as a result of late night cable TV packaging. The folks over at DVD Drive-In have a bunch of great articles about these stations.

One movie I discovered this way is a nifty little cannibalism flick called The Folks At Red Wolf Inn (1972), which made the rounds on television under its re-release title of Terror House. Don't you love it when a movie has more titles than Sean Combs' stage names?? The movie is also known as Terror at Red Wolf Inn, Terror on the Menu, Club Dead, and even The Terror Clubhouse and the Red Wolf Inn's Menu. Well OK, I made that last one up.

The movie opens with scenes of our heroine, Regina McKee (Linda Gillen), riding her bicycle around her college campus while a folky 70s love song plays over the credits. A groovy love song is a staple of the 70s Doom genre; sometimes the song was ominous, sometimes it was impossibly sweet, but usually the result was the same: someone was out looking for love, and they were going to find a bloody mess instead. Regina's song is a trippy guitar-strummin' tune about rainbows and weaving sun rays into a blanket while she waits for her Prince Charming. If this is supposed to be Regina's soul singing out this tune, she must have gotten ahold of some good weed.

The point that needs to be taken: Regina is lonely. We see her in her cookie-cutter dorm room with only some head shot posters of George, John, Paul, and Ringo to keep her company, while all the other students are leaving for Spring break. Regina herself has no money to go anywhere, so she's looking forward to a lonely couple of days when all of a sudden she opens her mail and WOW -- there's a letter in there telling her that she's won an all-expenses paid getaway to a seaside resort! When she calls the number in the letter, they tell her that she has to meet their private airplane at the airport that very night, so she's better hurry up and pack. And that she'd better not waste time calling anybody and letting them know where she's going.

When Regina's puddle jumper drops her off at the airport, she's met by a goofy guy known as Baby John (John Nielson). Baby John is around Regina's age and seems just a few flesh-sandwiches short of a picnic, but they still have fun together when he decides to run a few red lights and gets chased by the local police, taking Regina on a thrill ride through back yards and alleys to get away from the fuzz.

Finally they reach the Red Wolf Inn, a slightly sinister old house, and Regina meets her hosts, Evelyn Smith (Mary Jackson) and Henry Smith (Arthur Space). The two oldsters seem friendly enough, and Regina discovers there are two other young women staying there. Pamela (Janet Wood) is a ditzy blonde who greets Regina by saying "Hi, I'm a model!" Edwina (Margaret Avery -- yes, "Shug" Avery from The Color Purple) is a bookish college type, a voracious reader who gets upset because elephants are being slaughtered. None of the women seems suspicious of the fact that each of them arrived at the Inn under strange circumstances, or that one of them goes home suddenly each night. On Regina's first night, she and the others sit down to a huge meal, something that seems to be the norm at the Red Wolf Inn. Get set for one of the most disturbing scenes of the film: an extended sequence where we get closeups of people stuffing their faces with food. Usually when you see something like that in a movie, it's brief, but in this movie, we see six people stuffing their faces, making snorting sounds, grunting, and having trouble breathing due to the food stuffed in their mouths. The most disgusting moment comes from Henry, who takes several bites of vegetables, picks up a rib and looks at it like it's a piece of art, and tears into it while still holding ALL of the food in his cheeks while breathing through his mouth. Considering that we suspect all along the Smiths are CANNIBALS, and that the "rack of ribs" they're tearing into is really a human ribcage, this scene is really gross and unsettling. After the meal, Evelyn gives them cake and booze. Does it seem like they're deliberately trying to fatten the girls up?

The lingering dinner scene is also typical of the weird atmosphere of this film. After Regina has her first flesh feast and goes to bed, she has a bizarre nightmare where the director intercuts scenes of Regina eating birthday cake on the beach, Baby John making love to her, and the sounds of screaming birds and a human heartbeat. I don't know why, but this scene gives me the creeps. After Regina's nightmare, she wakes up and goes to the kitchen to look for some antacid, and she gets curious about the walk-in refrigerator. Before she can open it, the door bursts outward and Baby John emerges with a large knife, causing Regina to go into a screaming fit. Nevertheless, she forgives him for almost knifing her, and maintains her crush on him--one of the earliest signs that Regina herself is probably not playing with a full deck. We like her, though, because she's a really nice girl, looks very pretty in her little black dress, and even offers to help with the dishes. When she starts poking around the grounds of the Inn the next day, she finds a small carriage house behind the mansion. Not only does she find one of Pamela's dresses, she also finds a typewriter where it seems as if her very own surprise letter was composed, the one that informed her of her unexpected "prize". She also finds a small framed picture of the man who piloted the small charter plane that delivered Regina. Hmmm, so he's in the family?

Regina joins Evelyn and Baby John at the beach, where Evelyn feeds her some sandwiches. "It's really good. What is it?" Regina asks. Evelyn only tells her "Filet, dear. Filet." After Evelyn leaves, Baby John and Regina have a very memorable moment together. In a flawlessly edited sequence, Baby John and Regina flirt like two children, play together in the sand, and share an awkward kiss. Then Baby John gets a bite on his fishing rod, reels in a small shark, and starts freaking out. Swinging the shark by the tail, he beats it against a rock while screaming "Shark! Shark! SHARK!!!" After he's darn sure it's dead, he leaves it laying there and, channelling Keith Partridge, says to Regina "I think I love you." It's a ridiculous scene, and it's brilliant.
That night there's another party: it's time for Edwina to "go home". The entire group gets drunk on champagne, while Evelyn looks at Edwina as if she's tomorrow's meal already. After the girls go to bed, the Smiths sneak into Edwina's room, knock her out with a rag over her face, then carry her down into the walk-in fridge, where we hear them chopping her up.

Regina, who is belatedly suspicious, is alarmed when she's told that Edwina went home early in the morning, without saying goodbye. Regina tries to call her mother for help, but Evelyn hangs up the phone and intimidates her into going back to her room. A policeman arrives at the Inn, and Regina hurries out to him for help, only to realize that he's part of the family, too. Even worse, she's forced to sit at the breakfast table with the policeman and Baby John while listening to more 'eating' sounds. I'm pretty sure they were only eating french toast, but the sounds are still digusting. Did you ever stop to realize just how stomach churing the idea of eating can be?

With the policeman gone, and Baby John in charge or her while Evelyn & Henry are off on an errand in town, Regina is able to poke around and finally get into the freezer, where she finds the heads of Pamela and Edwina, as well as some vague body parts hanging on meat hooks. The secret is out! If any of you were surprised by this, then your last name must be "McKee" as well.

Freezer queens.
Eventually Baby John is forced to decide whether or not he wants to rebel against his grandparents and help Regina escape, or do nothing and allow her to be served up as tomorrow's meal (at dinner that night, as they gnaw on what is most certainly meat harvested from Edwina,
Henry mutters "I think we'll cure the next one"). When Regina refuses to eat dinner, she's sent upstairs, only to have Baby John try and help her escape. When they run into the greenhouse to hide, Evelyn and Henry send their dog in after them, and Baby John kills it with a shovel when it attacks Regina. Baby John's fragile mental state makes for some great tension here; Regina knows he is her only hope for survival, but he doesn't seem to understand exactly what is at stake for her, and she's not sure if he'll side with his grandparents. Evelyn starts crying over the dog to distract Baby John, while Henry seems concerned about the damage done to the plants in his greenhouse during the struggle (he keeps mumbling "Oh you poor things, so sad, so sad..."). While Evelyn keeps Baby John by her, Henry advances on the trapped Regina with a meat cleaver. She starts screaming and the film goes haywire again, cutting back and forth between her screams and scenes of parrots squawking in the greenhouse. Suddenly blood splatters on some of the plants, and we're not sure what happened.

Next we see the Inn and its surrounding, still kept up, still looking beautifully sinister. We hear someone singing "The White Cliffs of Dover", just like Evelyn did. Baby John sits in the kitchen of the Red Wolf Inn, playing with a dump truck. Then we see who's singing to him; it's actually Regina. The camera pans into the freezer, where we see the heads of Evelyn and Henry sitting in there. "And they lived happily ever after..."

Folks At Red Wolf Inn is fairly tame considering the subject matter, but the ingenious aspect of it is, it does not need to be explicit to be repellent. Instead of focusing on the sight of someone being slaughtered, it shows us the aftermath, with what we know to be human flesh being served up as part of a delicious meal, and seeing the cannibals obviously enjoying it. I remember reading that Ed Gein used to give his neighbors what he told them was "deer meat" but was actually human flesh from his victims. How repulsive would it be to know, long after the fact, that you'd unwittingly chowed down on somebody's ribs? That's what I kept thinking during that ridiculously long dinner scene. Did I mention that they play "Pomp & Circumstance" over it?

The actors make the movie good, too. While nobody here is going for an academy award, they are all extremely good in their roles. Linda Gillen makes a wonderfully vulnerable 70s horror heroine, with her naive outlook and genuine sweetness. Considering that this came out in 1972, with the Manson massacre only a few years behind, the notion of young people being corrupted and becoming monsters was a very resonant idea. Regina starts out a victim, but at the end of the movie, it's implied that she's become a willing accomplice, with she and Baby John replacing Henry and Evelyn. Speaking of Baby John, John Neilson is the most convincing one in the cast, hitting just the right weird notes. We can see why Regina likes him, but we can also see that he's crackers. Arthur Space and Mary Jackson (she of TV's The Waltons) are never particularly menacing as the old cannibal couple, but that's part of the reason why it works. They really are like somebody's grandparents.

The sound design of the movie is very cheap and amazing, too, with the director making some offbeat decisions (the bizarre nightmare sequence, a heavy reverb on one of the dinner scenes, the unexpected "oogah" horns that go off when Regina finds the severed heads). Offbeat decisions were the norm for Bud Townsend, it seems, since he also happens to have directed the notorious porn musical version of Alice In Wonderland. But he did have a way with a scene; the sequence on the beach is actually amazing in the way he builds up the anticipation of the first kiss between Regina and Baby John.

The moral of this story? If someone sends you a letter in the mail saying you won a contest you dont' remember entering, you'd better not call them. At least check first to see if it's a hoax or a scam. Don't fall for the old Red Wolf Inn trick, or you might end up with your head in the freezer.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Messiah of Evil (1973): I see "Dead People".

Originally released in 1973, Messiah of Evil was directed by Willard Huyck and written by Huyck with Gloria Katz. Huyck and Katz wrote American Graffiti, as well as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Like so many of my 70s favorites, Messiah of Evil was issued under a slew of alternate titles. 

The film opens to a haunting love ballad sung in a minor key. This one warns "Hold On To Love", and it features such lyrics as "Hold on to love, but beware of men who became beasts of prey / how many are they? / their one hungry goal: to tear your life apart / they are without shame / this is not a game / from them stay away, for you could become one, I say". Hmm, what could she singing about here? If you said "zombies", you're correct. Sealing the fact that this is a 70s doom song, the visual depicts a man running in terror from something and being comforted by a pretty girl, only for her to slit his throat with a razor blade for no apparent reason.

Then we meet our heroine, Arletty (Marianna Hill), a groovy chick who just happens to be confined to a mental institution. She narrates the film in voiceover, which helps to explain the oftentimes incomprehensible script. It seems she ran into some trouble in a small California town called Point Dune. Well, it used to be called "New Bethlehem" until the moon turned blood red, but never mind. Point Dune is where Arletty went to find her father, who had suddenly cut off all communication with her before warning her to stay away. Since when did THAT ever work?

Arletty's father is an artist, and a rather far-out one at that. He has a wild art studio in his seaside home, where the walls are all painted with giant murals of people, escalators, and lots of clouds. He also apparently was a trapeze artist in another life, because he sleeps on a platform that hangs from the ceiling by chains. This is where he keeps his turntable, too, which makes me wonder if he'd keep his record player on a waterbed if he had one. Oh, those artist types.

After stopping at the local gallery, which is run by a blind woman, Arletty runs into a trio of swinging hipsters who are in town for some unknown reason: Thom (Michael Greer), Toni (Joy Bang), and Laura (Anitra Ford). Yes, THAT Anitra Ford, one of Bob Barker's original "Price Is Right" babes and star of "Invasion of the Bee Girls". As you can see here, she has quite a way with a blow dryer. Thom is a rich kid, while Toni and Laura are apparently just two chicks along for the ride (not to mention the sex and drugs). Thom collects legends, and he's traced one to Point Dune, something about the moon turning to blood. Hmmmmm...could that be what Arletty's father was talking about in the extensive, delirious diary pages he left behind in his sketch book? The local drunk (Elisha Cook, Jr) tries to warn Arletty about what's going on -- he advises her to burn her father to death if she sees him -- but he's soon murdered for his trouble, his body found "as if it had been torn apart by animals". That's how half-eaten corpses are explained away several times in Point Dune.

Eventually Arletty meets her undead father, who offers some much-needed exposition about what the eff is going on in Point Dune. The residents are turning into flesh eating zombies due to the imminent return of the "Messiah of Evil", a sinister figure who is something of an evangelical cannibal. He got his taste for human flesh when he was part of the Donner party -- apparently eating people will curse you and you'll never be able to stop. You'll also bleed from your eyes a lot. The MoE's crusade turned all of the locals into zombies, at which point he disappeared, promising to return in a hundred years. Point Dune's current culture of cannibalism compels the residents to burn fires on the beach waiting for the Messiah of Evil to emerge from the sea, where he is presumably convincing common sea creatures to eat their own species.

Cleanup needed in the meat cooler aisle, pronto!

Although Messiah of Evil is often described as a zombie movie, it isn't what anybody would really expect. It's often too abstract to really be frightening (unless ultra 70s hairstyles and decor really scare the shit out of you), with only two main murder scenes providing some suspenseful moments. There is blood, but there's nothing too explicit and it would have only been considered shocking in 1973. The "zombies" are not exactly walking corpses. Everyone who is a zombie here moves and speaks just like an ordinary person, although they do tend to bleed from the eyes. There are precious few moments in the film that can be taken literally, and stuff just doesn't make sense. At one point Toni goes to the movies and doesn't find anyone working at the concession stand, so she just helps herself to a carton of popcorn. Then she sits there munching on it for what seems like hours, and it never empties. Eventually she dumps it out and there's STILL more popcorn in there. It's too bad the zombies got her, cause Toni could have solved the world's hunger problems had she lived.

Toni finds out why the movie theater offers free popcorn.

The loose narrative loses its way towards the end, but the main problem is that we have expectations about movies where people are dead and eat human flesh, and they are mostly defied here. Messiah of Evil also never bothers to explain itself, just giving us subtle hints and visual clues about what is turning these ordinary-looking people into the murderous undead. The movie almost seems unfinished, it leaves out so much. The lack of explanations makes for some strange moments, like Arletty freaking out as if she's on a bad acid trip and discovering bugs in her mouth.

Messiah of Evil is best for its quiet, doomy atmosphere. Everything in it is just so damn weird, and the way the characters behave is dreamlike. The visual look of the film is very colorful and unusual, full of odd sets and truly strange moments. Make sure to seek out the official DVD release...the crummy low budget video transfers that are available do not do the movie justice at all, due to the washed out colors, the print damage, and the harsh full frame crop. But even in the worst home video presentations, the style of the film is hard to ignore, as when Arletty confronts her father and he winds up covered in paint, his face and hands turned a shocking blue. Since it was filmed in the early 70s, everything that's depicted in the movie has an ultra-retro look to it. The lighting and design of the film is a little reminiscent of both Suspiria and Creepshow although it predates them by a number of years. The scene where Toni is mobbed in the movie theater reminded me of The Birds, with a steady parade of undead movie patrons filing into the theater and taking seats behind her, until she turns and realizes the theater is full of zombies.

Arletty's father expresses his disappointment after being rejected by the Blue Man Group.

Although Messiah of Evil is the most common title by which the film is known, it was re-released a number of times, most notoriously in 1979 when its then-distributor attempted to present it as a sequel to George Romero's films by calling it Return of the Living Dead, ripping off the poster from Night of the Living Dead, and using the tagline "When there's no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth" from Dawn of the Dead. Romero got a court order and put a stop to it, and the film reappeared as Revenge of the Screaming Dead and Night of the Damned. It was re-released again in 1981 under the title Dead People.