Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Movies Worth Googling: Strange Movie Reviews by Jenny Orosel

Dying is Easy, But Comedy is Hard: Humor and Horror

Non-fans see horror and comedy as polar opposites. Those of us who adore both genres, though, know the two work as beautifully together as peanut butter and marshmallow fluff. Ever since Abbott and Costello met Frankenstein, humor and horror have played a strange dance. Horror can use laughs to either break tension or build the rhythm of a scene. Then there’s the wisecracking villains (think Freddy Krueger) whose smart aleck remarks show their lack of sympathy (and that there was one too many sequels). And then there’s the straight-up satirical films, the comedies with a wink and a nod toward their horror counterparts. As difficult as these are to make funny, they are easy to screw up.

I was thrilled to find DEMON HUNTERS: DEAD CABIN LAKE (2004). It was made by the good folks at Dead Gentlemen Productions, the geniuses who brought us GAMERS (2002) and the fantastic sequel, THE GAMERS: DORKNESS RISING, brilliant satires of tabletop role playing games. Both were filled with obscure references to, not just the games themselves, but the culture of fandom surrounding them. To my disappointment, DEAD CABIN LAKE fell far from the mark.

Competing demon hunting groups go head-to-head to battle one of the most evil demons to exist. Only, one team always seems a step ahead of the other (or is the first really just one step behind?) Can our heroes (who include a ninja in purple underwear and a Christmas tree) defeat evil before their rivals do?

A set-up like that could have made for a fantastic satire of demonic films, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episodes or even obscure horror, with references that fans would adore, the way they did with the GAMERS movies. But I wouldn’t be surprised to find out the filmmakers never saw any horror outside the standard blockbusters, and even then, paid little attention. The jokes were mostly sadly predictable (during the fight training, one clumsy person misses the target and hits the film company sound guy, when the girlfriend dumps her boyfriend, there are “faking it” jokes). And while they had a solid story, it wasn’t nearly enough to fill the 90 minutes of feature length. Fight sequences went a few minutes too long, dialogue got slightly repetitive. Basically, there was an hour’s worth of movie in an hour and a half. My best guess as to why this movie is so much lower in quality than the GAMERS series is a lack of caring. You can look at the GAMERS movies and know just how much they love their RPGs. I wouldn’t be surprised to find the Dead Gentlemen folks really didn’t like horror. And it showed.

I did get to have a lot of fun watching DR. HECKYL AND MR. HYPE (1980), directed by Charles B. Griffith (of SMOKEY BITES THE DUST) fame. Oliver Reed is our titular Dr. Heckyl, a podiatrist, misshapen from his mother’s glue-sniffing habit while pregnant. He shares a medical office with one doctor who practices “tickle therapy” and a weight-loss doctor whose specialty is a formula that makes women shed pounds immediately. Heckyl, depressed at his fate as the ugliest man alive, tries to commit suicide by guzzling the weight loss serum. Instead of dying, though, he becomes “Mr. Hype,” a sexy sex fiend who has a bad habit of murdering women who don’t appreciate his sexiness (or their feet). Can the sweet Heckyl find a balance between the fast-living life of Hype and his homicidal tendencies?

The success of HECKYL owes a lot to the script by Griffith, who made his career writing many of the Corman scripts from the 50s and 60s. There’s a sense of pure silliness to this flick (death by toe-in-light-socket) and you can tell they didn’t take themselves seriously, yet they were still able to give a nod and wink toward the Jekyll and Hyde movies that came before, especially in the scenes with Hype, and the women he encounters. And, yes, some of the humor is predictable. So how is that different than DEAD CAMPER LAKE? First off, not all of HECKYL’s humor is telegraphed. Since only a fraction of the gags are obvious from miles away, it’s easier to forgive things when it is. Also, the performances were brilliant—not a single actor, even the bit roles, lacked comedic timing. Whether it’s true or not, it appears that more love and effort went into HECKYL than DEAD CAMPER LAKE, and the end result is a much more enjoyable movie.
Speaking of the end, though, that was the one downfall of HECKYL. It ends on a somewhat serious note. After a good hour and a half of strong laughter, to leave it on a downturn is a bit unsatisfying. My recommendation is to stop watching the movie about five minutes before the actual end.

Even more fun was ROCKULA (1990). Ralph is an adolescent vampire who still lives with his mother, and every twenty two years is cursed to relive the same tragedy over and over again—the love of his life is murdered by a pirate with a rhinestone peg leg wielding a ham bone. This time around, the reincarnated woman is a pop singer. In order to win her heart, Ralph becomes “Rockula: a musical vampire.

Unfortunately, he still has the pirate with a ham bone to deal with, once he can figure out just who that is.
Director Luca Bercovici has a lot of fun with the vampire tropes. He kept the immortality factor, played with the mirror trope (while not being able to see an actual reflection, an idealized version of Ralph lives on the other side of the mirror and taunts him mercilessly. The standard Bercovici has the most fun with is the “sexy vampire” stereotype. Ralph is a hapless dork who, in over a century of life, has yet to lose his virginity. Also, with music being a running theme, Bercovici was brilliant to cast music stars like Bo Diddly as Ralph’s friend, Toni Basil as his over-sexed mother and Thomas Dolby as the pirate villain. This satisfies the music fans in the audience. The cinephiles get Susan Tyrrell, star of FORBIDDEN ZONE and ANDY WARHOL’S BAD. All stars from every side of celebrity attack their roles with unabashed glee. It caters to fandom of all the stripes, and is entertaining enough for the casual viewer. All in all, the silliest and funniest of the bunch.

We watch horror because we enjoy exploring the dark side. There is definite value to that curiosity. But, as much as we gain from the dark side, we can’t forget to lighten things up now and then and enjoy a little time in the sun. But always wear sunscreen.

DEMON HUNTERS: DEAD CAMPER LAKE is available at But, trust me, buy their GAMERS series instead. You will not be disappointed.

DR. HECKYL AND MR. HYPE was only released on VHS, and that will run you over thirty bucks. However, it is available on Netflix’s “Watch It Now”.

ROCKULA was never on DVD. The VHS will run you over twenty dollars, and the laserdisc much more. This, also, is available on the “Watch It Now” Netflix feature.

--Jen Orosel