[review by JA Kerswell]
As close as Nico Mastorakis came to making an actual slasher movie in the 1980s (although he was actually the producer here bar overseeing the creative opening credits sequence) DARKROOM is equal parts banality and insanity.
|The psycho snapper strikes again in the Nico Mastorakis production DARKROOM.|
The film is at heart a whodunit and the fun is in trying to identify the mad photographer who is bumping off a family at a reunion at a remote country house. However, one of the film’s biggest handicaps (and, of course, biggest boons for bad movie fans) is a cast that largely imbues their performances with all the gravitas and enthusiasm of a group line reading for a car commercial.
The film opens with the axe murder of a couple by an unidentified assailant in a dirty yellow sou’wester and latex gloves, who snaps away with a camera before whacking them with the hatchet. The wife is offed in the kitchen as she bakes, with the cake mix artfully splattering the ceiling and she succumbs in a puddle of blood on the kitchen floor. Her husband gets it after he forgets his keys and makes the fatal mistake of returning home.
We subsequently find out that they were the nearest neighbours of an extended family living near by, who are enjoying (in a very stilted way) a reunion of sorts. There’s Mom Nora (Stella Kastner) and Grandpa Hodge (John O’Connor). Her two daughters Janet (Jill Pierce) and the cheeky Cindy (Sara Lee Wade). Their cousins Perry (Aarin Teich) and Mark (Allen Lieberman). Plus the addition of Steve (Jeff Arbaugh), Janet’s would-be fiancé, sporter of mullet extraordinaire (even by late 80s standards) and dun-dun-dun a fashion photographer. Plus outside, there’s someone lurking in the bushes watching their every move.
Nora is worried about her other wayward daughter Paula (Abigail Lenz), who she thinks is shacked up with Hillbilly George (Timothy Hicks) in his run down mobile home out in the woods. Come morning, Janet, Steve and Cindy decide to go looking for her to reassure Nora she’s alright. Before this Janet and Steve go looking for fishing rods in the basement. Steve discovers a locked door, and Janet nonchalantly says it was her father’s darkroom: “My father was a real photography nut” - before adding that he burnt to death in a fire ten years earlier with his sister, who was Perry and Mark’s mother. Hmmm, I wonder if this could have anything to do with a psycho stalking the orange groves with a Nikon in one hand an axe in the other?
|“Why did Mom let Gramps take the car?!”|
The intrepid trio discover Paula dead and tied to a bed in George’s trailer. It seems clear that he’s the killer. Or is he? As more member’s of the family fall foul of the psycho snapper (who likes nothing better than photographing live butts and dead bodies) who is the real culprit?
DARKROOM is not a good film by any stretch of the imagination, but if you are a fan of 80s slasher movies, and you keep your expectations low, it’s likely you’ll have fun with it. The majority of the cast act with little enthusiasm or conviction - almost like they are reading cue cards off camera. This lack of enthusiasm when coupled with forced and altogether half-hearted hysteria certainly raises a few chuckles, but it never quite tips over into full on bad acting. Best of the bunch are Jeff Arbaugh as Steve, who actually seems to be trying despite being saddled with hair like a mudslide. Cindy also has a nifty sideline in double-entendres (at least until the bodies start hitting the floor): she asks Steve what the F stands for on his camera; and offers to help him find his fishing pole with a theatrical wink. Kudos also to Sara Lee Wade for delivering a line reading that rivals Jodie Draigie’s infamous: “How do we know she IS alive?” in HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW (1983). Watch out for: “Why did Mom let Gramps take the car?!”. Jill Pierce as Janet, however, struggles to bring much to her role as the joint lead and is so wooden she could have camouflaged herself as one of the banisters during the climactic chases up and down the stairs during the film’s climax. And, without giving it away, the killer does get to go full nutzoid when he/she is finally unmasked. Which results in a scene with the psycho snapper telling a would-be victim: “I want you to die!”; to which would-be victim gamely shoots back: “No, fuck you!”.
Strangely prescient of the mother in YOU’RE NEXT (2011), Nora goes into a dead faint after learning of her daughter’s death (flopping to the floor with her arm draped over her forehead like a dime store silent era actress). Incidentally, the killing of the nearest neighbours is another similarity to the later film. Nora is put to bed by her family who struggle to find a pulse, so diagnose shock (she does at least convince in this aspect of her performance). She even slumbers through one of her family being beaten to death with a phone receiver right next to her bed. She does, however, rouse herself a little later, only to take a tumble down some basement steps before rousing again to valiantly jab the killer lightly with an icepick. All the while she sounds like she’s reciting her lines from the back of a breakfast cereal box. It’s a performance for the ages. Stella Kastner next went on to ‘wow’ as Regina (Farm Woman) in DEMON WIND (1990).
|Will there be a morning? For this mullet that's a resounding yes!|
For much of its running time, DARKROOM is pretty plain vanilla as far as later 80s slashers go. However, Mastorakis’ typically perverse touch can be seen in the motivation of the killer: which is driven by an incestuous past. Mastorakis also produced the similar GRANDMOTHER’S HOUSE in 1988 (both films were probably lensed around the same time and on the same locations). Both were made by his Omega Entertainment independent studio. The child lead of GRANDMOTHER’S HOUSE (Eric Foster) puts in a cameo here during a flashback sequence. DARKROOM was filmed in the 4:3 format for the home video market in and around the orange groves at Omega Studios in North Hollywood, California.
The film had three (yes, three!) writers. Rick Pamplin and Robert W. Fisher registered the screenplay as DARK ROOM in 1988, and later worked together on MAGIC 4 MORONS (2000). Steve Sanders, who provided the film’s sfx went onto work on much bigger budgeted productions such as DEEP IMPACT (1998). Whilst Mastorakis directed the inventive and playful title sequences, first time director Terence O’Hara took the reigns for the rest of the movie. He went on to forge a very successful career in directing for TV, including 44 credits for NCIS (2003-2017) and THE BLACKLIST (2015-2018).
Canadian actor Aarin Teich appeared in THE BOY FROM HELL the same year and took the lead in DEVOURED: THE LEGEND OF ALFERD PACKER (2005). Jill Pierce perhaps surprisingly went onto a successful TV career with appearances in such shows as BEVERLY HILLS, 90210 and TWIN PEAKS. Jeff Arbaugh also enjoyed a career in mostly TV. His last role was a small part in THE COLLECTION (2012). Sara Lee Wade had previously worked behind-the-scenes in the art department for such genre fare as THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD and FRIDAY THE 13TH PART V: A NEW BEGINNING (both 1985). She debuted in 1984’s BLOND FURY as “Tammy the teenage timebomb”. A likable presence, it’s a shame she didn’t do more. Abigail Lenz, who has to do nothing more here than play dead, went on to be Mindy in RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD PART III (1993) as well as enjoying a brief recording career.
I won’t spoil the identity of the killer (although many promotional covers and artworks do just that), but I will reveal that Steve makes it to the final reel. The film ends with of a shot of him and his mullet lovingly bandaged by paramedics. And it doesn’t get more late 80s than that.
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female: 4 / male: 5
1) Female seen dead
2) Female killed with an axe
3) Male chopped in the back with an axe
4) Male stabbed through the back of a car seat
5) Male bashed on the head with a plank and then shot
6) Female beaten to death with a phone receiver
7) Male found hung
8) Female whacked in the back with an axe
9) Male stabbed in gut, nearly drowned in developing fluid and run through with pole