I think perhaps that HALLOWEEN (1978) is the most imitated movie ever made. Saying that it didn’t start the slasher cycle is like saying that Elvis Presley didn’t event rock and roll. It’s fundamentally true, but you can be sure that without his emergence, the wheels would never have been set in motion and the music brought out of obscurity and into the homes of zillions of fans across the world. Up to ten years after Carpenter’s success, directors were still attempting to recreate the magic that he captured so effortlessly in only 28 days. These offerings created the popular sub-genre that some say gave us plenty of entertainment, while others moan that it went too mainstream, putting an end to horror’s run of fortune that launched itself at the beginning of the seventies. By the early nineties, stalk and slash flicks became a lot less common; censorship problems that excluded the chance of any graphic gore narrowed releases down to perhaps two or three a year. Then in 1996 Wes Craven reinvigorated them, with his Box Office smash, SCREAM (1996). It was almost a reoccurrence of the same manifestation that happened some eighteen years earlier. An equal amount, if not more copycats climbed out of the woodwork, including fairly good offerings like THE CLOWN AT MIDNIGHT (1998) and SHREDDER (2003) and some laughably bad ‘uns like CAMP BLOOD (1999) or DEAD ABOVE GROUND (2002). Eight years later, almost mirroring the fate that befell the previous run, movies like THE RING (2003) and CABIN FEVER (2003) have taken horror in a new direction leaving the category struggling to get any further recognition, thus putting an end to another (in) glorious run. But doesn’t the song say something about saving the best for last? That’s exactly what director Neal Sundstrom has done, because SLASH (released late 2003 in the UK) marks a return to form for a brand that was almost as extinct as the dinosaurs…
After a notable credit sequence, which includes the word SLASH getting…erm… slashed, we arrive at a barn out in some creepy backwoods. A young child is sitting inside; listening to a music box that is playing a tinny rendition of Old Mac Donald. His ‘fun’ is spoilt, when the door opens and an ominous silhouette wheels in a freshly dispatched corpse on a trolley. The kid hides behind a haystack so that he can get a good look at what’s occurring, while the mysterious guy begins to embalm the body with an ingeniously created blood draining kit. (Wow do they sell those in the Deep South? I’ll have to check Amazon!) He is alerted to the nipper’s presence when the music box starts up once again on its own, forcing the nasty looking elder to head out and search for where the pesky little sound is coming from. The youngster tries to escape, handily kicking over a paraffin lamp as he goes, which effectively torches the barn and his would-be assailant. Now, as I’m sure frazzled old Cropsy or his knife-fingered partner in crime Mr. Krueger will gladly tell you; this kind of thing generally pisses off most Psychopathic serial killers. So I’m betting that a few unfortunate (teenage) people are going to have to pay with their lives for that little misdemeanour - very, very soon!
Cut to a couple of teens driving down a foggy country road. The guy is sporting a ‘Ghost face’ mask as a blatant nod to SCREAM, while the girl is wearing, well, hardly anything! The conversation gets drafted onto slasher movies, and the female signs her own death warrant with the unwisely placed comment, “…Nobody goes round in a dumb mask, hacking people to death.” What’s the wager that she’s going to swallow those cardinal words? Presumably with an exquisite amount of force! Their journey takes a slight detour when they swerve to avoid a (blatantly cardboard) cow that’s sitting in the middle of their path and crash through a sign coated fence, that reads ‘J. MacDonald’s farm’ (I know, I know, EE-I-EE-I-OH and all that!) Once the pair has recovered, the guy succumbs to the call of nature, effectively signalling a cue for the Grim Reaper to get to work. (It’s almost as bad as going to investigate a strange noise, or fornicating in woodland areas with a murder rate that’s higher than Normandy beach circa 1944!) After a pretty good false scare, he finds his calling with a scythe blade through the stomach, which neatly splashes a tidal wave of corn syrup across the windscreen! His girlfriend heels it to the barn that we saw in the prologue, but she too takes her first step on the road to the resurrection, as a hatted and masked ‘scarecrow’ realigns her body parts with the aforementioned blade! It looks as if things are really beginning to heat up…
Next up, we meet our sure to be group of victims, sorry, characters at a nightclub.
They really are a group too - a rock-group called Slash, which unlike The Clowns
(from TERROR ON TOUR (1980)) or Rocktober Blood (from…erm,
ROCKTOBER BLOOD (1984)) these guys actually make a fairly impressive
noise, that’s reminiscent of those decent ‘depressives’ Radio
Head. Joseph MacDonald (James O’Shea) and his girlfriend Suzie (Zuleikha
Robinson) lead the band of cheesters that all can’t help but look like
uncannily good victim material for Mr. Scythe-wielding scarecrow! The pickings
are stereotypically banal, including a slut, annoying guy, wannabe stud-muffin
and our patently predictable hero and heroine. I kept expecting one of the girls
to say, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this”, but
alas, it wasn’t to be. They sit round and discuss their last performance
and Joe informs them that they’ve managed to earn themselves a showcase
for Hektik records one week from the day. Celebrations are cut short when a
crafty-looking redneck enters the room looking for ‘Mr. MacDonald’,
bringing the unfortunate news that his auntie has passed on to greener pastures.
The mysterious messenger informs him that the funeral’s the following
Saturday on the death-laden farm from earlier, giving us as good a reason as
any to bring the lambs directly to the slaughterer. (Well it had to happen somehow,
didn’t it?) Just as it looks as if Joe’s going to show him where
he can stick his funeral (quite literally), the stranger pulls a small model
from his pocket and places it on the table in front of him. The scarecrow figurine
obviously has some kind of ominous meaning, because next thing we know the teens
are aboard the tour bus and heading out to the deep and conveniently secluded
Upon arrival, Keith (Craig Kirkwood) sums up the troupe’s feelings by slandering Southern folks for, "Lynching his ancestors, sleeping with their cousins and inventing Country music" (Now he may have a point with the last one!) The farm itself pays homage to a whole host of suspicious characters that may or may not be part-time slashers! First of all, there’s Billy-Bob (Nick Boraine) the shaky handyman that immediately puts himself in the frame with the comment, "it takes them a full thirty seconds for them to realise (that) they aint got a head". (Talking about chickens, we hope!) Then we meet Joe’s father, Jeremiah (Steve Railsback), whom also looks like an un-approachable sort of fellow at the best of times, especially with his somewhat over-keenness with that big old 12 bore shotgun. After he almost commits the third slaying of the movie; stopping inches away from splattering the hackneyed omen’s head open with a shovel (she warns the kids that they’re doomed ala Crazy Ralph), he climbs right up to the top of our list of possible masked-massacre inflictors! Lastly, there’s the compulsory lard-ass Sheriff that is also the local priest (and probably the doctor, coroner, town crier and window cleaner too!). He hasn’t given us any reasons as of yet to believe that he may be moonlighting as a Jason Voorhees impersonator. But hey, if you’re reading up to this point, then I’m sure you’ve seen more than one slasher flick and you know it’s usually always the quite ones that you’ve got to watch out for. Besides, he drinks ‘moonshine’ and is about as good at Law enforcement as Mr. Bean is at Brain-surgery, which could be very risky (or handy) under the current circumstances…
Meanwhile, back on the ranch, Joe informs his father that he and his gang are getting not so merrier by the minute - merry-makers are leaving the day after the funeral. But we already know that there’s as much chance of that happening as my home country of Ireland winning the World cup without loosing one point in 2006. When their tour-bus beneficially ceases to ‘tour’, they realise that they’re stranded for the next couple of days, or just enough time to loose a few limbs and pints of blood under that effectively nasty scythe! As sure as George Lucas loves dribbling over tin-can robots, or George Best loves a freshly pulled pint of Guinness; the masked-killer puts in a reappearance and begins slicing his way through the band members in order of their star billing. Young MacDonald (hey, a good Alternative to old MacDonald) himself has been acting a little creepy, so could he be the killer? Or has someone less obvious taken a fancy to wearing a scarecrow guise and becoming a homicidal Maniac? As a refreshing change, this conclusion isn’t as fundamentally obvious as the usual run of the mill plot-twists that we’ve become so accustomed too…!
SLASH seesaws between conventional and wholly authentic all the way through the movie. The kill-scenes are formulaic and predominantly gore-free, but the intriguing research on deranged redneck stereotypes makes for a compelling watch, helped no-end by some decent performances all round. Funnily enough, this was shot in South Africa, giving a credible impression of America. The native cast members all manage convincing accents, especially Nick Boraine, whom looks more like a backwoods Southerner than backwoods Southerners probably do! James O’ Shea was a little wooden in places, although he was acceptable all the same. It was Steve Railsback that truly stole the show as his bordering on psychotic father, giving a decidedly nasty portrayal. The deranged family premise brings to mind shades of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), but it avoids treading along the dangerous lines of an amalgamation, which is an always-inviting bonus. Even though slasher movies aren’t known for their glaring originality, this one chucks in a few winsome elements that just allow it to pull itself above the flock of its over-crowded counterparts. Stephen Francis’ screenplay doesn’t overdo the use of comic relief (we all hate those rancid horror-comedies), but at the same time, Keith and Billy-Bob’s constant bickering just about works as a neat little touch of alternative entertainment. There’s enough time given to character development so that we become acquainted with the leads, however it was in need of a more alluring surviving girl and they shouldn’t have killed off Kirkwood as quickly as they decided too.
Sundstrom directs competently enough and everything is neatly lit and photographed.
To be honest, we could have done with maybe a few different methods for murder,
the scythe routine was becoming a little tiresome by the fourth time over, but
the stalking scenes managed to create some decent suspense and the showdown
was smartly paced and fairly surprising. Scarecrows are creepy horror icons
at the best of times and even though this killer was by no means as scary as
the more sympathetic butcher from DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW
(1981), he still manages to generate a few decent set pieces. Sadly there’s
not a lot of inadvertent humour or cheesy thrills, except maybe the group’s
final song that includes the lyrics, "I don’t live there anymore",
while the backing singers chant, "EE-I-EE-I-OH!"– Seriously.
Whether 2004-will herald many more ‘decent’ slasher movies is doubtful. People have moved on and we need another SCREAM or something similar to kick-start the fledging category once again. SLASH is a good enough finish to the latest run, it may not include the allurement of the true classics from the peak period, but it’s a damn site better than the host of the schlock that has been disappearing from shelves over the past couple of years in an imperturbable manner. This effort is recommended as probably the last fairly adequate offering of the Craven-inspired copycats. Give it a go - you may be fairly surprised…
female:2 / male:6
1) Male teen impaled on scythe blade
2) Female teen hacked to death with scythe
3) Middle-aged female killed with scythe
4) Male murdered with scythe (yawn!)
5) Male dispatched with axe
6) Male squelched by blades of tractor (ouch!)
7) Male burned and then presumably killed in explosion?
8) Male hit in the chest with axe