RETRO REVIEW: Splatter Cinema and the Plaza Theatre Camp It Up at SLEEPAWAY CAMP!

Posted on: Jun 9th, 2014 By:

Splatter Cinema presents SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983); Dir. Robert Hiltzik; Starring Felissa Rose and Jonathan Tiersten; Tuesday, June 10 @ 9:30 p.m. (free photos in a recreation of a scene from the film start @ 9:00 p.m.); Plaza Atlanta; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Friday the 13th is upon us this week, and Splatter Cinema has taken the bold step of avoiding Crystal Lake altogether. Instead, they and the Plaza Theatre bring you a blood-soaked classic from another camp: Robert Hiltzik’s SLEEPAWAY CAMP!

Horror movies are disreputable. If you have any doubts about that, ask yourself how many horror films have won Oscars versus, say, movies from any other genre. Ask yourself how many times a horror movie has been handicapped right out of the gate by critics for simply being a horror film. Ask yourself how many times a great horror film has received only qualified praise (“it’s good…for a horror movie”).

So, yeah. Disreputable. Marginalized. Ostracized.

But slasher flicks? Doubly so. At least.

Sure, they’re typically formulaic. Then again, so are gangster pictures. So are westerns. So are films noir. (Nobody walks into DOUBLE INDEMNITY and thinks, “I’m sure Fred MacMurray is going to get out of this just fine.”) But limitations sometimes produce great art. John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN? Great art. Hitchcock’s PSYCHO? Great art. Tobe Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE? Great art.

SLEEPAWAY CAMP? Well, not even I am going to argue that this is great, much less art. But it’s fascinating. Sure, it was obviously designed to capitalize on the whole “people are getting slaughtered at a summer camp” trend that was raking in bucketloads of cash in the 1980s, and as a knockoff of an already-critically-maligned series, it’s automatically more disreputable than most.  But it’s visceral and pulpy in a way that 90% of FRIDAY THE 13TH films most definitely aren’t. It constantly teeters on the brink of ridiculousness, has a definite and palpable sense of danger, and pulls off the most insane climax of any entry in the slasher movie subgenre.

The plot is paper-thin, seeming to be merely a hook upon which to hang multiple corpses. Introverted Angela and her protective cousin Ricky are sent to Camp Arawak for the summer. There, she is bullied and attacked by a series of people, all of whom wind up dead at the hand of an unseen killer stalking the campgrounds. Superficially, this doesn’t appear that different from most entries in the FRIDAY series. But one thing that sets SLEEPAWAY CAMP apart is whom the film targets.

Typically, in FRIDAY THE 13TH movies, most of the victims are the camp’s counselors and staff, generally vulnerable women (and the occasional vulnerable guy). Their deaths are all the more likely if they have just had sex, are contemplating having sex in the near future, or have a passing interest in potentially having sex at some point in their lives. But in SLEEPAWAY CAMP, most of the people who get killed are the campers themselves. In slasher cinema, this is generally not done. It’s out of bounds. Kids are innocents, and our killers’ knives are out for those who have transgressed some kind of warped code of adult morality. But not here. At Camp Arawak, the kids and adults are jerks and bullies, and nobody is safe. This alone would make the movie one of the more morally questionable entries in the slasher field. Add in the increasingly bizarre ways in which people are slaughtered (beehive? curling iron?) and you’ve got reprehensibility writ large.

But beyond the victims being targeted and the means of their destruction, what also makes this film stand out from its competitors is its relentlessly odd tone. There are tons of slashers that attempt to inject some humor into the mix, but few do it with as straight a face as this movie. Other films, for instance, might play up the character of camp owner Mel Costic as an over-the-top bit of comic relief, as he constantly tries to spin the series of outlandish murders as simple accidents. But while he’s obviously something of a caricature, he’s no more or less overtly comic than any other adult in the picture. He’s the equivalent of Paul Bartel in Joe Dante’s PIRANHA: a comic authority figure, but not a jokey figure. He is, at least, more relatable than Angela’s aunt Martha, who seems to exist in some weird state of hyper-eccentricity that feels like it’s been borrowed from some other movie altogether. The presence of renowned character actors like Mike Kellin (as the aforementioned Mel Costic) and Robert Earl Jones (father of James) lends a level of credence and gravity to these roles that would otherwise be ham-handedly played for comedic effect. As a whole, the character work in the movie seems to work on an almost delirious TWIN PEAKS-ish level, where we’re thrown off because what we’re seeing is funny, but it’s not parodic or written as explicit comedy. And when it combines with the horror of the film’s content, it’s…off-puttingly humorous.

And that’s not even getting into the whole psychosexual aspect of the movie that just traipses giddily all over the line dividing “sympathetic” and “offensive” and builds up to a twist ending that has left jaws firmly planted on floors since 1983.

Upon release, the movie was generally ignored as just another kids-at-camp-getting-killed flick. But even then, there were rumblings of this being something bigger than that. I remember, after first seeing it as a VHS rental, talking with friends of mine about how mind-blowingly nuts the movie was. How inventive the kills were. THAT ENDING. And in the years since, a sizable cult has grown up around this movie as tales of its oddball charms have circulated among horror fans. Today, the movie holds an impressive 82% favorable rating at RottenTomatoes.com. From critics who really ought to know better.

So here we have one of the more disreputable entries in arguably the most disreputable subgenre of an already disreputable genre. And it has developed a large following and overwhelmingly favorable critical consensus. It has traveled the full circle of sleaze all the way back around to ultimate acceptance, like someone made a John Waters movie completely by accident.

So take some time out of your busy mid-week schedule to visit the kids at camp. No, not Crystal Lake. The other one.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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Mall Insecurity: Just A Few More Chopping Days Left Until Splatter Cine-mas at the Plaza Theatre

Posted on: Dec 9th, 2013 By:

Splatter Cinema presents CHOPPING MALL (1986); Dir. Jim Wynorski; Starring Kelli Maroney, Tony O’Dell, Russell Todd, Barbara Crampton, Dick Miller, Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov; Tuesday, Dec. 10 @ 9:30 (photos and merch table open @ 9); Plaza Theater; Trailer here; Facebook Event Page here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

In the middle of the holiday season, when shopping centers are teeming with masses of bargain-hungry consumers, who doesn’t wish that a few bloodthirsty killbots could be unleashed to thin out the crowds? Look no further than the Plaza Theatre for some vicarious thrills as Splatter Cinema presents CHOPPING MALL!

You know, there was a time when a Jim Wynorski movie meant something. Granted, it didn’t mean much. But you knew what you were getting when you saw his name on the screen—an exploitation movie that didn’t take itself seriously in the least, and that sent itself and the genre up for affectionate ribbing. In short, a kind of low-rent Joe Dante flick (which makes sense, as both directors came from the benches of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures farm team). This is best exemplified in his two most fully-realized movies: his 1983 feature debut THE LOST EMPIRE (a comic variation on THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME but with a lot more nudity) and his more successful follow-up, CHOPPING MALL.

CHOPPING MALL answers the age-old question, “what would happen if mall security was handled by robots, and a freak lightning storm caused them all to go kill-crazy on a bunch of teens partying in a furniture store after-hours?” This question has plagued theologians, philosophers and scientists for centuries, and finally found all of its potential ramifications explored in full, rich, intellectual detail in the hands of Jim Wynorski. The answer, of course, is “well, the kids would start dying in hilariously bloody ways, and it would look a lot like DAWN OF THE DEAD if, instead of zombies, there were really cheap robots that looked kind of like Number 5 from SHORT CIRCUIT, yet acted like the ED-209 from ROBOCOP.”

Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov in CHOPPING MALL (1996).

Wynorski’s direction is perfectly adequate for this. It’s not pushing any envelopes or even trying to be groundbreaking in any way, but it’s tight and well-paced, creating a fun sense of tension while at the same time allowing you to chuckle at the complete outlandishness of it all. The movie hides its cheapness reasonably well, making the most of its Sherman Oaks Galleria setting, and features a host of familiar faces to distract you from the low budget. Among the teens getting slaughtered are Kelli Maroney from NIGHT OF THE COMET, Tony O’Dell from HEAD OF THE CLASS, FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2’s Russell Todd and scream queen Barbara Crampton of RE-ANIMATOR and FROM BEYOND fame. Cameos are provided by the always-welcome Dick Miller (as Walter Paisley, his character name from A BUCKET OF BLOOD) and the delightful team of Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov, reprising their roles of EATING RAOUL’s Paul and Mary Bland.

In short, CHOPPING MALL is just a whole hell of a lot of fun, and one of the better (and bloodier) ways to blow off steam this time of year. If you want to turn your over-taxed, shopped-out brain off and have a riotously good time, you could hardly do better than watching a shopping mall turn against the idiots populating it. And don’t forget to show up early and get your photo taken in a gore-filled recreation of one of the movie’s scenes! It truly is the most wonderful time of the year.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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Retro Review: ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL: School’s Out at the Plaza This Weekend

Posted on: May 12th, 2011 By:

By Mark Arson, Contributing Writer

Art Opening & A Movie Presents ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (1979); Dir: Allan Arkush (with Joe Dante and Jerry Zucker, uncredited); Executive Producer: Roger Corman; Starring P.J. Soles, Vincent Van Patten, Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel, The Ramones; Art from Dave Cook, Derek Yaniger, R.Land, Kevin Rej, Chris Hamer, Josh May, Matthew Manning, Shane Morton, Scotty Mominee and Trish Chenard. Fri. May 13, 9:30 pm and Sat. May 14, 9:30 PM; Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

Teen comedies are a tricky thing to pull off. Any film can be funny with good enough writing, but for a teen comedy to be memorable, for the audience to really fall in love with the setting and characters, some sort of fantasy element has to be at play. As most of us know, the day-to-day life of being in high school can be tedious and excruciating. Some of the best movies from this category excel at this, many of the films of John Hughes, for instance. Before those, though, there was ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL. Originally pitched as DISCO HIGH, and slated to star the Bee Gees, as fate would have it, the film ended up centered around the Ramones, a fitting choice as they fit in better in the world of B-movies than they did in real life.

ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL is set at Vince Lombardi High, where dozens of students smoke and buy test scores (as well as a ridiculous variety of  other things) in the restrooms, paper airplanes defy the laws of physics, there are…er…..about three teachers total, and Riff Randell pretty much does what she wants. Riff, played as the embodiment of a free spirited teenager by PJ Soles,  is the self-proclaimed #1 Ramones fan. She also happens to have written quite a good song for them, which was written by The Ramones in real life (a stroke of genius). Part of the conflict in the film involves Riff trying to get her song to the Ramones, but the major friction occurs between the new Principal, Evelyn Togar (Mary Woronov, at the top of her game here) and, well, the entire student body. The earlier rebellion swells to a standoff by the end of the film—mice explode, documents are shredded, and the Ramones even show up at school!

The Ramones and #1 fan Riff Randell rock the walls off Vince Lombardi High in ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL. Photo credit: New World Pictures.

As I said earlier, the fantasy element is really important to a film like this, and as such, the focus on the Ramones couldn’t be more appropriate. In the movie, they ride into town playing to a line of fans waiting in line for days for tickets to their show, 100 tickets are bought by the kids at the high school, and tempers flare upon Principal Togar’s burning of hundreds of their record albums. It’s hard to imagine now, since they’re evolved into a musical legend (partly cemented by all of their founding members having died years ago), but the Ramones really weren’t all that popular at the time, especially not in the US. They are obviously great sports here, though (especially in the dream/fantasy sequence), and their propensity for playing it straight makes it all the more convincing that they could really have been the biggest band in the world. Maybe their confidence was just something that was easy to pick up on film.

Mary Woronov plays Principal Evelyn Togar in ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL. Photo credit: New World Pictures.

It seems unlikely that the Bee Gees would have inspired the kids to blow up the school at the end of DISCO HIGH, even though it would have been hilarious if they did. The film we (fortunately) did get instead is full of memorable characters, some of which are Ramones playing themselves, of course, and plenty of great vintage ‘70s comic moments and teenage rebellion. You’ll have a hard time understanding why the Ramones weren’t huge, and you’ll wish that you went to Vince Lombardi High, what’s left of it anyway.

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Retro Review: DEATH RACE 2000: It’s Not Whether You Win or Lose, It’s How Many You Kill Along the Way

Posted on: Mar 24th, 2011 By:

By Mark Arson, Contributing Blogger

DEATH RACE 2000 (1975); Dir: Paul Bartel; Starring David Carradine, Mary Woronov, Sylvester Stallone; Sat. March 26;  SPLATTERDAY NIGHT LIVE Stage Show at 9:30 pm; Screening at 10 PM; Plaza Theatre; $10.

DEATH RACE 2000 is one of my favorite films of all time, and I could probably stop at that. But I also could talk about this movie for hours, so I’ll meet you wonderful readers halfway. I was tempted to watch the recent remake with Jason Statham just as a reference point, but having heard about the differences between the two films beforehand I decided to skip it. Why? Because killing people for points has been removed in the remake, entitled simply DEATH RACE. Now, the concept hardly even seems to make a difference in the original film (it is implied that finishing first means more than scoring the most anyway), but DEATH RACE 2000 is first and foremost a dystopian sci-fi film, and in this case, the point that drives the state of the world home is that people are watching other people being run over by cars on TV.

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