Lunar Cycle - June 2020

Since I don’t have as much time to write longer reviews than I used to, I figured I would just post shorter reviews for horror/cult films that I feel deserve your attention. Expect these Lunar Cycle posts once per month.

KILLER PARTY (1986) - ** out of ****

Directed By: William Fruet

Starring: Martin Hewitt, Ralph Seymour, Elaine Wilkes, Paul Bartel, Sherry Willis-Burch, Alicia Fleer, Woody Brown, Joanna Johnson, Terri Hawkes, Deborah Hancock, Laura Sherman

Genre: Horror/Slasher/Supernatural/Comedy

Running Time: 91 Minutes

Plot: Three sorority pledges are tasked with ensuring that the gals of Sigma Alpha Pi throw a killer party at an abandoned fraternity house. Unfortunately a vengeful spirit decides to take the killer epithet literally. With a special appearance by ‘80s hair metal titans White Sister!

Out of the three April Fool’s Day themed horror films from 1986, KILLER PARTY was the one I had the least familiarity with. The reason is that I had believed I had seen this film before, but I actually hadn’t! So I was kind of excited to watch something new out of 80s horror. Too bad my excitement quickly dissipated as the film went along, because KILLER PARTY is a severely flawed slasher film. Sure it’s better than APRIL FOOL’S DAY, but it never comes close to matching the absurdity and silliness of SLAUGHTER HIGH.

To be honest with you, I’m not exactly sure what KILLER PARTY is trying to be. Obviously it’s focused on being a slasher film, with a few stalk-and-slash moments to ramp up a body count. The final act becomes some sort of supernatural possession movie that doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie. And then most of the film’s tone feels like a frat comedy, where things are played for laughs rather than any sort of terror or seriousness. William Fruet’s direction of KILLER PARTY leaves a lot to be desired, as there’s no consistent tone and I was confused as to what I was supposed to get out of the film in general. Films can work with multiple tones, but Fruet doesn’t have the ability to balance it all for it to flow organically. As much as I dislike APRIL FOOL’S DAY for being extremely dull, at least it has a single tone and mood to make me understand what the producers were going for. Same with the so-bad-it’s-good SLAUGHTER PARTY, which knew it was dumb and embraced it from beginning to end. KILLER PARTY feels like film that wants to be everything at once - a case where the screenwriter and director threw a whole bunch of random stuff at the wall to see what stuck. And it appears a lot of random stuff stuck, creating a movie that suffers from schizophrenia. It honestly took me out of the film for the most part.

There’s not to say that KILLER PARTY is a terrible film. It has a pretty cool opening where we get a film-within-a-film-within-a-music-video-within-a-film. The music video, in particular, is a lot of fun, especially helped by a catchy hair metal song by White Sister [who?]. The sorority hazing and initiation scenes are quite humorous, especially moments where characters have to answer by saying “I want a big, fat cucumber,” to multiple people who ask random questions. The slasher stuff is pretty generic, but I really liked that final act with the possession deal. Sure, it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the film, even though we learn throughout the film that the house the sorority plans to have their Halloween party in is considered haunted. It honestly comes out of nowhere, but I felt that the film finally found its footing having certain characters get possessed, spit out green goo, and attack other people without a care. I wish the entire film had done this because there was an energy here the rest of the film lacked. I even thought the final few minutes up to the ending were quite amusing in a messed up sort of way. Fruet directs this entire act very well and seems to be having fun shooting it. The make up effects are super nice and the special effects are pretty convincing. I understand shooting a slasher would be cost efficient for any production, but the supernatural angle was where it was at with KILLER PARTY.

The acting was fine. Joanna Johnson was good as Jennifer. She’s set up as the Final Girl, displaying her fear for this certain house while being more alert and cautious over the other characters. Johnson gets the most to do in the film, portraying many layers of her character and doing well with all of them. Sherry Willis-Burch is also fun to watch as Vivia, the nerdy prankster of the film. She brings much needed energy to the film and she seems to be having fun being in this film. Ralph Seymour is both funny and creepy as Martin. Seymour plays up the character as so socially awkward that you wonder if he has buried any bodies in his backyard. But he did have genuinely funny moments. And we also have appearances by Martin Hewitt as Jennifer’s love interest Blake. Hewitt is probably best known as Brooke Shields’ love interest in 1981’s ENDLESS LOVE. And we also have character actor Paul Bartel as Professor Zito, appearing in one of the funnier moments of the film. Not sure why he was here, but glad he received a check for his work. Good cast who did what they could with an oddly written script.

As for the soundtrack, we get some New Wave and ‘80s pop songs, including KC and the Sunshine Band’s hit “Give It Up”. Plus there’s the theme song called “Best Times”, which sounds like a cheesy Bananarama rip-off. It definitely fit the times for sure.

Overall, KILLER PARTY is a film I struggle with in terms of how I feel about it. For one, it has a movie-within-a-music-video-within-a-movie opener that’s a lot of fun. It also has a cool final act involving supernatural possession with good tense moments. Plus the cast seems to be having fun and the film has some genuinely funny moments going for it. On the other hand, the tone of the film is all over the place. Is KILLER PARTY a slasher film? A frat comedy? A possession flick? It’s like it wants to be everything at once and only half-succeeding at each tonal change. Plus other than the fun opener and closer, the direction is pretty pedestrian and doesn’t do a whole lot to excite or scare its audience. KILLER PARTY is a film suffering from an identity problem, which makes it a weird watch. But it’s not trash and if it had a stronger vision of what it wanted to be, this could have been a very good film. Only worth accepting the invitation if you have 90 minutes to spare for a mild time.

INTO THE DARK: THEY COME KNOCKING (2019) - ** out of ****

Directed By: Adam Mason

Starring: Clayne Crawford, Josephine Langford, Robyn Lively, Lia McHugh, Dwight Hicks, Shane Carpenter, Willa Miel Pogue

Genre: Horror/Supernatural

Running Time: 85 Minutes

Plot: After losing his wife to cancer, a father takes his two daughters on a road trip where he finds his family in the crosshairs of terrifying supernatural entities.

Into the Dark’s first June installment for the series, THEY COME KNOCKING, is apparently a Father’s Day centered story… that’s more about the ghost of the mother who has left a father and his two daughters grief stricken. Of the installments I’ve seen so far, THEY COME KNOCKING probably has the best acting and the best emotional beats. But like the rest of the episodes, the narrative takes too long to get to its point, weakening the stronger aspects of the film as it reaches towards the finish line.

Since I already mentioned the acting, I might as well elaborate on how good it is. Clayne Crawford, probably best known for the Lethal Weapon television series, carries the film really well as the father. His grief, frustration, anger, confusion and his eventual lament are all believable, making him extremely sympathetic towards his situation. Same goes to the younger actresses, Josephine Langford and Lia McHugh, who also play the same beats but in different ways. Langford is more vengeful and angsty in her portrayal, while McHugh plays it more passive-aggressively until it wears down on her character by the film’s final act. I thought the three of them shared great chemistry and really came across as a real family who deal with the mom’s passing the same, yet different all at once. It was also nice to see Robin Lively of the cult classic TEEN WITCH acting, this time as the unfortunate mom who passed away from cancer. She appears in many flashbacks, but also in visions as she comes across as both loving, sad, and even frightening at times. I thought the cast was, by far, the best thing about THEY COME KNOCKING. 

I also liked how the film played with the audience’s emotions at times. Though I do think the film was padded with way too many flashback scenes and montages to really drive home the sad situation this family is dealing with, at least it allowed me to connect to them on an emotional level. Losing my mom to cancer years ago still aches inside of me, so it was probably easier for me to sympathize with them and care how they would deal with their grief and get out of the ruts each one is in. They’re all dealing with the mother’s passing differently, all justified in their feelings and their anger towards each other about it. For me, the dramatic portion of the narrative was strongest and if the film was shorter and focused more on the human element rather than the supernatural one in the last half, THEY COME KNOCKING would have been a better film for it.

Unfortunately, if THEY COME KNOCKING was just a drama film, it probably wouldn’t have been included in this Hulu series and no one would have noticed its existence. So since this is a horror anthology series, that aspect had to be included. And for me, that’s where the film falls apart. So instead of just a sad drama about grief, the grief takes on a physical representation in creepy hooded children with black eyes. From what I gather, these characters seem to be based on some sort of urban legend or creepypasta I’m not all that familiar with, so their presence didn’t do much for me. Apparently these children knock on people’s doors to be invited in, like vampires, only wanting that invitation to cause psychological and emotional trauma to those vulnerable. THEY COME KNOCKING doesn’t hide its inspirations here. You get a bit of THE HILLS HAVE EYES and THE STRANGERS here, weakening a strong dramatic narrative for a few jump scares and creepy moments that ought to work better than they do. The scenes with the visions of the mother do work, only because we’ve seen the flashbacks and how her death has affected them. And having these children twist the characters’ realities and making them believe in things that aren’t there do have their effective moments. But in the end, it just feels like two films in one and the tone becomes a bit inconsistent because of it. It also doesn’t help that the film takes way too long to get to the creepier moments, replaying similar beats that would have been more effective if the filmmakers had trusted their audience more. But at least the film’s core is well structured and handled, which is more than what I can say for many of these Into the Dark installments.

The direction by Adam Mason, who also directed a previous installment called I’M JUST F*CKING WITH YOU, is pedestrian at best. I’M JUST F*CKING YOU, while I wasn’t the biggest fan of it, at least had a lot of visual flair and presence, crafting this colorful atmosphere that was pleasing to the eye. THEY COME KNOCKING is a lot quieter and muted, which fits the grief element perfectly. But other than that, the film doesn’t have a ton of visual style that would catch anyone’s eye. The evil children are visualized very creepily and some of the stuff the visions of the late mother present are very cool, but done much better before. But other than that, it’s a film with decent editing and flow. Nothing more to really say about it.

Overall, THEY COME KNOCKING is an Into the Dark installment that probably would have been better if it were a bit shorter and had stuck with one tone throughout. The grief element over the passing of a wife and a mother is super strong, with the characters [a father and his two daughters] handling their loss in various ways that end up connecting them by the film’s end. The dramatic narrative works because the film lets you see how devastated they all are through flashbacks and how each one interacts [or barely interacts] with the other. As someone who lost their mother, I was instantly sympathetic to these characters and I cared to see how they would all end up. The acting, especially by Clayne Crawford, is especially good in bringing life and genuine emotion to these characters, allowing the audience to connect with them.

It’s too bad that Into the Dark is a horror anthology though, because the creepier aspects of the narrative weaken the film. Blending THE HILLS HAVE EYES with THE STRANGERS, THEY COME KNOCKING wants to represent the grief through a supernatural means - in this case, hooded children with black eyes who use negative emotions and memories to psychologically damage their victims in order to feed upon their dark energy. The children are creepy at first and the visions they present to the family [using the late wife/mother to manipulate them] works at first. But the film is way too long for a story like this and just ends up dragging its feet to the finish line rather than letting us watch this film get themselves out of their grief in a natural way. Plus, the direction is just pedestrian, with brief stylistic flourishes every now and then but nothing you’ll remember once the film is over.

THEY COME KNOCKING could have been one of the better Into the Dark installments because it had a lot of promise. But its inconsistent tone and focus on cheap scares rather than genuine emotion bring it down a notch.

THE ASPHYX (1972) - *** out of ****

Directed By: Peter Newbrook

Starring: Robert Powell, Robert Stephens, Jane Laportaire, Alex Scott, Ralph Arliss, Fiona Walker, Terry Scully

Genre: Horror/Fantasy/Science Fiction

Running Time: 99 Minutes

Plot: Hugo is a brilliant turn-of-the-century scientist, loved and respected by his family and friends, admired by his colleagues. But he is a man quickly becoming obsessed with a curious and frightening question… what is the mysterious apparition found in the photographs of his dying subjects?

I always get a kick out of watching horror films from the ‘70s and ‘80s for the first time. 1972’s THE ASPHYX is one of those films, as I had heard about the film every now and then due to its interesting concept and how it may have slightly inspired ideas for the GHOSTBUSTERS franchise. I was expecting some sort of lost classic while watching it. And while the film does present some cool concepts and has good performances, THE ASPHYX is a perfect example of a movie that might have too much substance when it could have used more style to make it more memorable in horror circles.

That’s not to say that THE ASPHYX is a bad film. It’s just that the script is so dialogue heavy, it can cause one to lose a bit of interest in what’s going on. In a lot of ways, the movie plays out like a theatrical show or soap opera. It has the characters discussing ideas of death, immortality and other deep stuff that’s so super interesting, I wish more films would explore these themes. But the issue is that a film can have too much substance going for it at times where you wish more style and/or action would pop in every now and then. The film gets better at balancing this towards the film’s climax, but it does take a while to get to what we’re all wanting to see - the Asphyx itself.

That being said, THE ASPHYX does contain some intelligent and captivating themes that not many horror films really focus on. Not only is the film presenting certain elements that GHOSTBUSTERS popularized visually, but it’s really a FRANKENSTEIN story at heart. The idea of immortality is a tale as old as time, but THE ASPHYX presents it in a clever way that almost feels like a Twilight Zone episode meant to teach its audience a lesson about the dangers of playing God. The main character, Hugo, is a scientist who takes photographs of people dying or already dead. He sees these dark blots above all the subjects of his photos, realizing there’s something supernatural going on. This is when he learns about the Asphyx - an entity that’s responsible for the death of living things by stealing their souls. Hugo figures out that stopping and trapping the Asphyx will cause people to continue living, making it an obsession for him to understand the creature and the laws of immortality. Sometimes more knowledge isn’t always a good thing, especially if it starts effecting family and friends in dangerous ways. I won’t spoil the narrative more than that, but if you know anything about mad scientist films, you know the end result isn’t usually happy. The idea of immortality is always a concept that is brought up now and then, making us wonder if it’s worth living past our expiration date. If a higher power needed to balance things between life and death, who is anyone to say that’s wrong and should be changed? Hugo thinks it’s worth exploring, even if the people around him are against the idea even as they try to support his quest.

Since it’s a small production, not too many important characters appear in THE ASPHYX. Hugo is a well-written mad scientist who isn’t doing things out of evil or having this predetermined notion of playing against what God intended. He’s a heavily flawed character with well intentions, but even good people can get corrupted with power and knowledge without realizing how much of that is harming the people around them. The only other major character of note is Giles, Hugo’s adopted son who reluctantly helps Hugo with his experiments. He’s fascinated about the idea and is amazed when he and Hugo are able to see the Asphyx in person and attempt to study it. But he also understands the damage it also brings and seems himself in a losing battle against his adopted father. There’s also Christina, I guess, who becomes a bigger player in the final act of the film when she finds out what her father and Giles are doing. She’s the voice of the audience - the person who is against and afraid about what her father is doing. Only Hugo and Giles are remotely interesting, as they get the most screen time and dialogue. It gets a bit tiresome to hear them discuss things rather than doing them by the film’s end, especially once we see the Asphyx in front of our eyes. But they do feel like people that could exist in real life, debating the pros and cons of their actions and doing the wrong thing every time. And while I wish some of the dialogue was a bit simpler and less heavy-handed at times so a bigger audience would be able to embrace this movie more than they do, at least THE ASPHYX is about something worth thinking about. So it gets points for that, even if the execution could have been more entertaining.

Since this is a small production, majority of the film takes place in a Victorian Era manor. Director Peter Newbrook, his one and only directorial film although he had worked on other films such as LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI previously, isn’t the most stylish, but he knows how to use set pieces and a single location well enough to create mood and atmosphere. It feels like a Hammer Film at times, with the manor looking like a stage on a set that brings a level of charm with it. The single location also creates a bit of claustrophobia at times, only providing some relief when characters do manage to go outdoors every now and then. THE ASPHYX is also a beautiful looking picture that’s very British, which I actually dug. The best visual moments involve any sequence involving the title character, who had to have inspired the look of GHOSTBUSTERS’ Slimer. While I’m sure the effect is mainly done via cool tricks with lighting, it looks pretty cool for an early ‘70s flick. The screaming of the Asphyx anytime Hugo and Giles capture it prior to it finalizing a person’s life is chilling. The death sequences are also quite fun, including an electric chair moment, a gas tank that explodes with someone in it, and a guillotine demise that’s probably the most shocking of them all due to mischievous pet. Not the most exciting film to look at, but it’s pretty easy on the eyes and has its moments.

The acting is excellent in THE ASPHYX. Robert Stephens is wonderful as Hugo, our lead mad scientist. He starts off as pretty stuffy, yet very likable and kind. But as the film runs along, Stephens slowly changes the character’s personality to the point where he portrays Hugo as borderline obsessed and insane over his knowledge of the Asphyx, convincingly playing a man who is losing himself in his work. He grows angry, he’s dismissive of his own family, and doesn’t care who he hurts in order to find concrete answers. Stephens makes it all believable. Robert Powell is also good as Giles, playing a man who wants his adopted father’s approval until realizing that getting it probably wasn’t all that worth it when it comes to Hugo’s work. Powell is the antithesis of Stephen, trying to ground the other actor when he goes ham. I thought the two shared nice chemistry and played off well against the other. Jane Laportaire as Christina was fine as well, although she didn’t really do a whole lot besides certain moments near the end of the film. But she played off the two Roberts well where it counted.

Overall, THE ASPHYX is a good film that I honestly wanted to like more considering the concept is very interesting. The theme of immortality and the cost of achieving it isn’t anything new, but the film presents it in a way that is visually fun at times. It’s too bad there aren’t more moments of style and action, because the film does get bogged down a bit due to it being very dialogue heavy and being told about things rather than letting the audience see and experience them first hand. And while the direction isn’t anything special, at least the stuff with the title character is well visualized and captivating, including the death sequences that revolve around the Asphyx. The acting, especially by Robert Stephens as “mad scientist” Hugo, is really good and help flesh out the characters in believable and human ways that ground the film within its supernatural atmosphere. THE ASPHYX is a gothic throwback with enough mood and Hammer Film feel to be watchable for those who need that kind of fix. Considering how it probably had some influence on 1984’s GHOSTBUSTERS and is a decent take on the FRANKENSTEIN vibe, I consider this one a lost gem that should be watched at least once. Not immortal, but has enough life to please for the most part.

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