Saturday, January 26, 2008

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon


I'll be honest, I wanted to resist "Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon." It's just me -- when everyone says a movie's some brilliant satire/deconstruction of a genre I tend to roll my eyes because, more often than not, the people saying that don't necessarily understand satire/deconstruction and will chalk any basic in-joke up as great satire.

And the first part of "Behind the Mask," a mocumentary about a man who believes he's the next Freddy/Jason/Michael seems like it isn't going to do much but lay out all those in jokes. The fact that it was a mocumentary made it seem all the more simplistic. Surely there was no way this movie could set-up everything it was setting up and still pay the thing off at the end in any sort of respectable or intelligent way.

Yeah, I was wrong. This movie absolutely pays off its entire set-up and then some. And given that that set-up is practically the entire first two acts of the movie, that's no small task.

For the first hour or so of this movie we meet the man who may or may not be Leslie Vernon, a small-town outcast who committed a heinous crime as a child who was presumably killed by the locals. Because of his story he's convinced he's the next supernatural serial killer to terrorize a small town by butchering local teenagers. This is the literal world of Freddy, Michael and Jason -- Leslie knows who they are, has studied them and now is ready to start his adventures using their formula for success. It takes "Scream's" rules and amplifies them 100 times, Leslie lays out his entire plan, the entire movie and reveals every trick, nuance and protocol there is in a slasher movie. He plans for it, he picks the crew of kids he's going to stalk, he figures out where they'll go to party so he can have his revenge, he figures out the order of the killings. Seriously, no detail is ignored or glossed over.

The set-up works and the final act resolves and embraces the set-up completely, turns it on its ear and then works inside those rules without copping out. I don't want to give anything away because the surprises are that well-thought out. But to put THAT many rules on a series of events and then completely stick to them is something I never imagined the movie would be able to do.

This is not a snarky movie, it's not there to take the piss out of the slasher genre, it's a celebration of them -- at least that's how it feels watching it (I have no idea what the creators' intentions were, to be honest.) This is a love letter to these movies, a love letter that says 'these movies work, the characters that get caught up inside them can still be trapped, even if they're self-aware, even if they know they're in a slasher story.'

Not even the mocumentary concept gets in the way, mostly because the creators are smart enough to know when to leave it behind and get to the actual storytelling.

I'm not sure "Behind the Mask" is a particularly scary movie -- I'd say "Scream" delivered far more legitimate scares. What "Behind the Mask" is is a brilliant movie that delivers tension and unpredictability even though it claims to have laid out the entire final sequence for you earlier. It is able to be unpredictable because it sets up its structure and format so perfectly.

Anyone with a love or interest in slasher movies needs to see "Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon." I have a feeling the more you know about the genre, the more you're going to get sucked in. And then get caught not knowing what's going to happen next, even though they already told you.

Friday, January 25, 2008

When A Killer Calls

Obviously, direct-to-dvd horror is more miss than hit when you're just pulling titles off the shelf based solely on how much the box can convince you you're about to watch something scary/exploitative.

Obviously, I didn't grab "When A Killer Calls" expecting anything even remotely resembling a good movie. The title's a complete rip-off, the cover blurb talking about 'America's Most Horrifying Urban Legend' says it's a rip-off -- this is not a movie aiming to do anything but sell to people who will buy ANYTHING in this sort of genre. (Yes, yes -- people like me.)

So I don't really watch a movie like this expecting the movie to be good -- I watch it more just to see how it's made, how it looks, how it's written, how it's acted. The hope is you'll find something - be it an actor, director or writer that's got some sort of spark beyond the bottom levels of the genre.

Does 2006's "When A Killer Calls" deliver anything inspired, original or interesting? Nope. It's pretty much exactly what you expect to find when you pick up a movie called "When A Killer Calls."

You know the joke -- hot girl alone babysitting is tormented by a faceless caller who says horrible, ominous things to her while she debates calling the police and going upstairs to check on the girl she's watching. It's been done a million times. It'll be done a million times more. It'll be done better and worse, I'm sure.

Unfortunately, "When A Killer Calls" is really badly done. The direction is fairly standard-issue most of the time and he tries to go for a weird visual effect from time to time, I guess to imply when the killer is watching but it doesn't really work and at one point he uses the effect when the girl is making popcorn -- not exactly adding tension to the moment. In fact, we'd be better off left to guess when the killer is watching because when the director tells us it actually lessens the suspense. The two drunk teens wandering off to have sex are being watched -- gee, you think so?

We have a seviceable screenplay, that's not to say it's good but at least it doesn't make you shake your head. The scenes with the teenagers especially manage to keep their heads above water by having functional dialogue that doesn't try too hard to sound hip. And given the fairly wooden performances from the actors, the dialogue could easily have been left out to dry.

Movies like this worse when a feeling of claustrophobia takes over. We need to think/believe the girl in peril is trapped and that the situation is worse than she believes. But this movie doesn't really have any tension. People wandering off alone doesn't put us on edge, it just reminds us that we're watching a dumb horror movie.

Whereas good movies in this genre use suspense and subtlety to build tension, this movie basically uses violence to try and create horror. Not to sound like a broken record, but if no one cares about the characters -- or even the actors -- it's tough to get any sense of tension, no matter how gruesome the visual attacks.

It doesn't help that the main girl's a pretty dreadful actress and is presented really badly by the material. Her top is preposterously low-cut, even though we're led to believe this is his first babysitting gig in some time and thus she'd probably want to make a good first impression on her new bosses. She's also wearing shiny lip gloss on her bottom lip that the lighting of the movie catches non-stop. Did no test her look on camera before shooting? Like most of these movies do, rather than make her interesting or fun, since she's supposed to be the emotional core of the movie, she's turned into a drip. Of all the characters she'd probably the one we'd least care to see die, at least the drunk kids are funny. At least her boyfriend can act.

And is there anything less than a lame maniac? The psycho-babbling sexually-repressed killer is SO over-played. At least Jason had some charisma.

What kills a movie like this, though, is its complete lack of charm. Slasher movies used to have a sense of manic glee, a sense of there being young bucks throwing everything out to see what sticks. A movie like this is so safe, so predictable and so generically realized that all you end up doing is wondering why anyone involved even bothered.

Or why I bothered watching.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Some Plans

People ask what I'm hoping to do with this site/blog and I think it's a fair question. What I'm trying to do is have conversations with people about these movies that I enjoy. I'm not trying to be an expert or know-it-all, I'd rather learn something than just spout opinions non-stop. I'm trying to be part of the discourse, not a voice of authority.

As I said below, I haven't seen every Dead Teenager Movie out there, although I've sure seen a lot. I want to do more than review, too. Reviews, to me, should spark discussion rather than close a topic. And reviews to me are about more than just deciding whether or not I liked or didn't like a movie and would I or wouldn't I recommend it. My reviews hopefully will be more 'what did I think about watching this movie?' 'What did I notice?' 'What did this movie remind me of?' No, I won't like everything but, as this site is about Dead Teenager Movies, I do skew more positively toward the subgenre. I like the subgenre and as such like bits and pieces of it, warts and all.

I mean, I don't even hate the "Black Christmas" remake as much as everyone else did. I wouldn't call it a good movie but it had what my brother and I call "a certain charm."

I think what differentiates genre fans from non-genre fans is the ability to find that "certain charm" in even the most banal of additions to the canon. Is it something I'm always proud of? No, not really. But it does make for more fun times at the movies!

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Top 100 Dead Teenager Movies

This website ( has a list someone concocted of the 100 Best Dead Teenager Movies of All-Time, done mostly out of spite directed at Roger Ebert who insisted no such list could possibly exist.

Even looking at the Top 10 I have to take some exception (and no I haven't seen every movie, perhaps I should make that a goal here in the first year of doing this blog/site):

1. Scream (1996) dir. Craven
2. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) dir. Craven
3. Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006) dir. Glosserman
4. Sleepaway Camp (1983) dir. Hiltzik
5. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) dir. Hooper
6. Halloween (1978) dir. Carpenter
7. Ginger Snaps (2000) dir. Fawcett
8. Final Destination (2000) dir. Wong
9. Idle Hands (1999) dir. Flender
10. Battle Royale (2000) dir. Fukasaku

For one thing, "Scream" can't be #1 because it's a deconstruction. In order to be the best of a genre something should, to me, exist solely within the constraints of that genre without sneaking a peek out. That's not to diss "Scream," which I think is an amazing movie, but it's not the best simply because it's standing on top of and looking at the other movies inside the genre. Take that self-awareness away and "Scream" doesn't do anything any other number of movies do along the way.

Which is why "Halloween" is obviously the #1 greatest Dead Teenager Movie of all-time. And I hate that Roger Ebert, who I generally like, tries to cop out and say it isn't a DTM. Why? Basiclly because he thinks it's a really good one (in fact he had it in his Top 10 Movies of the year, the year it was released) and because of that shouldn't be lumped in with some of the turds the genre created later. I don't get that: why can't a movie that is simply the best of its genre be content to be considered the best of its genre, even if the genre itself might be somewhat lower on the social totem pole.

"Halloween" IS the definitive Dead Teenager Movie. In many ways it created the entire genre. Most 80's DTM's are simply remaking "Halloween," reusing its shots, its conceits, it's character types. In nearly every case the end result is nothing but a knock-off but more than any other movie, "Halloween" is the blueprint for most of what followed it. Even a movie like "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" didn't generate a mainstream surge of literal copycats the way "Halloween" did. In fact, to this day very few movies look or feel like "Chainsaw." Maybe people were afraid of it, or maybe it didn't perfect a formula the way "Halloween" did.

Beyond scaring the piss out of us, that's what "Halloween" did: it perfected a formular for horror that works, to some degree, without fail. Hell, a good part of "Scream" itself reuses actual scenes from "Halloween" to create tension and tell its story.

And you can't say the one performing the homage is superior to the source material.

Without question, "Halloween" is the greatest Dead Teenager Movie of all-time.

(But, no it isn't my favorite per se.)

Sunday, January 20, 2008

2001 Maniacs

I saw Herschell Gordon Lewis's "2000 Maniacs" a loooooong time ago. I can't say I thought it was a great movie at the time although I certainly got a kick out of it. There's a weird technicolor glee to the whole thing that was a complete about face from most brooding castle-horrors of the Hammer era.


"2000 Maniacs" was kinky, slapstick horror, leaning closer to Ed Wood's style than Alfred Hitchcock's but there's an undeniable charm to the low budget thrills of the piece and, honestly, the idea of a Southern time rising from the dead to kill wandering northerners is actually pretty clever. It's really most memorable for its creative kills -- the man being rolled down the hill in a barrel driven through with nails sticks out but there's also a woman smashed by a rock as part of a carnival game that I personally found particularly charming. While it does still feel like homemade porno the sort of 60's movie musical look makes for a memorable horror movie, to say the least.


It's also interesting to notice that in "2000 Maniacs" the victims are all middle-aged. This was before dead teenagers took over the slasher genre, around the time of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" ten years later.

Jump ahead about twenty years and I'm wandering the local Blockbuster trying to find four flicks to cash in on the standard '4 for $20' deal and I saw this box:


Now, of course, I'm a sucker for anything with Robert Englund and at five bucks I couldn't pass up the deal.

"2001 Maniacs" is a blast, my friends, as big a blast as you can have watching a horror flick. Is it frightening? Well, no, not really. It's slapstick horror, the gore's the punchline and every character is clearly in on the joke. That's not to say it's a 'wink wink' sort of comedy, not at all. Look good satire the characters sell the story to the moutaintops, treating even the most cheesy and irresistable comic moments like they're Shakespeare.

The premise is basically the same: northerners wander too far south and end up in Pleasant Valley, the final resting place of the Maniacs who bring their town to life for the pruported purpose of putting on an annual festival, which is nothing but a backdrop for them to ceremoniously massacre their guests. Unlike the original, the victims here are all college kids on the way to Spring Break. Also in the original, which was made in 1964, the Maniacs are avenging the 100th anniversary of their town being wiped out. In 2001, there's no such specific historical parallel.

The northern characters are stereotypical frat kids, bordering on the irritating, which is good because we'll ultimately be happy to see most of them get killed. The guys especially come off annoying but, well, frat-boy twenty something guys inherently come off annoying, don't they?

The Maniacs are drawn far broader, chewing their Southern scenery with aplomb. Robert Englund leads the way as Mayor Buckman, the brains beinh Pleasant Valley. Southern stereotypes are all over the place and the jokes go right after the obvious: kissing cousins, in-breeding, bestiality, a black guy offering watermelon. It goes for the angle of being SO obvious that it would be impossible to be offended as the filmmakers and performers are clearly not only in on the jokes, but relishing in them.

What happens next is what always happens in movies like this: people start splitting up and people start getting killed. Much like the original, the kills are more about being visually inventive and funny than they are there to be chilling. A girl is drawn and quartered by four horses, a guy chokes on a beer bong laced with acid, a guy meets his demise at the end of steel teeth, hell, a gay guy even gets a spear rammed right up his ass and out his mouth, the black guy is smashed by the world's largest cotton gin (at least he doesn't die first!)


Again, it's all for kicks and giggles.

My biggest regret is that my favorite girl dies first. Man, I HATE it when that happens. Alas, poor Kat, I hardly knew ye.



The movie does something cool in the final act though -- when it gets to the climax the movie does darken a bit (in the first lengthy night scene, which I doubt is a coincidence.) Suddenly the cartoony villains of Pleasant Valley shriek forth with their truly terrifing origin story. We do tend to ignore how horrific an event Sherman's March probably was but for a few minutes the characters of Pleasant Valley relive that terror and blow it back in our faces. It's a bit over-the-top but it's a cool move on the filmmaker's part to believe that they can deliver something so serious after the first hour that was so much a romp.

Is "2001 Maniacs" great horror or a great movie? Not in the classical sense, no. There are some tone problems and some effects are great while a couple are distractingly less well done. The script, especially the more casual dialogue amongst the protagonists, isn't always particularly well done and a couple performances bring it down a bit further. But, overall, the actors and characters are pretty and likeable and the bad guys are so damn charming that it's tough to resist the ride.

I'm not sure "2001 Maniacs" will convert someone who hates this sort of thing to its cause. Still, for people maybe tired of the somber dirge that much horror has become of late on the big screen, this movie harkens to a different time when there was more to horror and gore movies than just disgusting people. And it also reminds us that sometimes the best way to set-up a dramatic finale isto have a lot of laughs in the build-up.

A sequel "2001 Maniacs: Beverly Hellbillies" is in production and I really can't wait for it to hit the streets.

If only they could bring Kat back one more time. Just for me :)


Welcome to what is the temporary home of the future I own the domain but won't get it up and running for a month or so but I want to start talking at least.

My name is John Popa, I'm 34 years old, live in Ohio and I freakin' LOVE what are unaffectionately called 'dead teenager movies.'

Slasher movies.

I'm the youngest of three kids and my big brother is 4 years older than I am. Which means when I was eight or nine he was turning 13 and watching scary movies with all the other kids in the neighborhood. I'm sure parents nowadays would wig out about their kids watching scary movies before the appropriate age but, well, my parents never worried about that stuff. If we were dumb enough to want to have the crap scared out of us by a movie, they weren't about to stop us. Besides, we were mostly good, smart kids.

We lived in a neighborhood that was surrounded by woods. Today most of those woods are gone, of course, having been made into houses and shopping centers and what not. In 1980, though, if I wanted to watch a scary movie at the neighbor kids' houses, that involved a looooong walk/run home through a neighborhood seemingly built for a stalker -- lots of woods, lots of darkness and lots of teenagers. Had a boogeyman wandered into Canton, Ohio looking for a group to terrorize, we probably would have qualified. I can clearly remember lots of nights sprinting home from the neighbors certain that there was something unsavory following me over my shoulder.

See, here's the thing. Horror movies scared the piss out of me, but I watched them anyway because that's what the big kids were doing.

Like a lot of us, "Halloween" was the movie that really rocked my world. Not in a good way, it scared me down to my bones. For a kid probably under the age of 10, it was horror overload. Like Roger Ebert said in his review of that flick, "Halloween" isn't a movie we watch, it's a movie that happens to us. It really is an assault on our fears and senses.

But you all know that, of course. And the last thing we need is another person sitting around explaining why "Halloween" works. I think it's been covered.

As much as "Halloween" kept me up and restless night after night and made me the one kid who rarely wanted to be left home alone, it wasn't until I went to a slumber party in seventh grade that my life was forever linked to slasher movies -- that was the night I met one Freddy Krueger. My friend Mike had a sister a year older than us and a couple times a year they'd have co-ed slumber parties, the centerpiece of which were always a handful of horror flicks grabbed from the local video store. This is how I first saw "A Nightmare on Elm Street," huddled in a sleeping bag trying to look cool to a girl a year older than me, while, deep down, I was scared to DEATH. I lost a lot more sleep in the wake of seeing the first "Nightmare" but, most importantly, it was the movie that sent my imagination reeling. It pushed every button imaginable -- Freddy was horrifying but still likeable in his weird way (and this was before the sequels would dilute the character,) I naturally had a huge crush on Heather Langenkamp's Nancy Thompson character and I discovered the movies of one Wes Craven.

From then on I spent most of my weekends emptying the local video stores of their horror sections -- I watched 'em all, good, bad or otherwise. As puberty kicked in, the game became more sophomoric sure -- the more boobs and bondage a movie could throw at me, the happier I'd be. I plowed through Wes Craven's back catalogue, saw "Nightmare 2" at the theater (with my dad chaperoning of course, otherwise a thirteen year-old would never be allowed in.) I watched all of John Carpenter's movies, I could find, started reading Stephen King and Clive Barker books.

There was a core of us who became the horror kids, looking for big scares and big laughs and really anything that could entertain us. But it was the slashers that hooked me. The plots were the same, hell, most of the time the movies were just remaking "Halloween" with dumber heroes and heroines, but I didn't care. I could always find something memorable in even the most simplistic of the "Sorority House" terror types of movies. But we weren't the black-haired gothic kids, we were smart kids, with bright personalities and ideas. We had fun with this stuff and never wiped the grin off our faces watching or talking about these movies. Oh our parents and teachers thought we were wasting our time and brains but since when do kids care what adults think?

And here, twenty-odd years later, I'm the same way. Oh, sure, I appreciate good horror and understand the more substantial works of horror out there. I spend my winters in the theaters taking in the years' Oscar contenders. Still, when I have a night free there's still a basic, indescribable thrill in just grabbing a handful of whatever direct-to-DVD horror movies out there and throwing them in for kicks.

I'm not here to apologize or elevate Dead Teenager Movies. Yeah, I get that "Scream" added a layer of subtext and irony to the concept but, I'll be honest, a slasher movie does NOT have to be clever and self-referential to amuse me. Not everything has to transcend the genre. Maybe that makes me the lowest common denominator or something. Regardless, this site is to CELEBRATE Dead Teenager Movies in all their glorious excess.

I hope you enjoy the ride as much as I do.