Tuesday 3 November 2009

VHS Purgatory:
Hell Island (aka Slaughterhouse Rock)
(Dimitri Logothetis, 1988)

Possessed of few immediate qualities beyond a basic, unassailable strangeness, 1988’s ‘Hell Island’ (US title ‘Slaughterhouse Rock’) is a movie that few people will find it in their hearts to love. It is after all a boring, confusing, aimless mess, lacking in any memorable imagery or directorial flair and featuring startlingly amateurish, cheap looking production values for a film distributed by a major studio in the late ‘80s.

But then, I probably don’t have to remind you that there are those of us out there who, when confronted by such a shambling, misbegotten runt of the cinematic litter, will have little choice but to give it a big hug and vow to take care of it forever. A little honest-to-god strangeness can go a long way in the formulaic world of ‘80s horror, and whilst it may crap out on just about every other level, boy oh boy does ‘Hell Island’ ever have some strangeness in store for you.

Well, ok, sure, it’s not THAT strange – I mean, it’s not like a lost Jodorowsky film or something - but we can definitely file it with that select group of fuzzy-headed obscurities whose failure to take heed of any known set of genre conventions renders them works of unique joy and puzzlement, ready to reveal their vague and inconsequential mysteries to anyone who dares stare hard enough into their eerie, pan-and-scan totality.

Happening upon a nest of unloved horror VHS in the basement of Music & Video Exchange in Greenwich, and wondering which of them might be worth a purchase, you can imagine my train of thought as I skim read the back of ‘Hell Island’ and clock the following;

* ”Inexplicably haunted by terrifying visions of a prison-like fortress..”
* ”A dream specialist persuades Alex to visit the island of Alcatraz..”
* ”..the imprisoned undead spirits of missing rock star Sammy Mitchell (Toni Basil) and her band..”
* “..under the spell of the prison’s sadistic Commandant..:”
* ”..a spree of murder and mutilation..”
* ”Music by Devo”

Yes! I know! Me too! Here is your shiny pound coin, Mr. Music & Video Exchange cashier. You can keep your third rate ’87 vintage slashers and vague, undistinguished exorcism flicks, and I KNOW there’s not actually a beserker in ‘Beserker’, but this one – this one’s coming home with me.

It’s safe to say there’s probably enough of us out there these days who want a slice of the hoo-hah outlined above to gain this movie SOME kind of low level cult veneration regardless of its actual quality, but back in ’88 you have to wonder how many cinema-goers even made it past the torturously drawn out opening sequence. Here we see a heavy-breathing, monstrous creature of some kind shambling his way slowly through a dank, rat infested sewer, interspersed with shots of a pair of disembodied hands trying to free themselves from some rusty manacles before, presumably, the monster arrives. This vague unpleasantness goes on and on, presumably to build ‘tension’, the way that classes on directing movies say you should. Only in this case, director Dimitri Logothetis demonstrates a mixture of sheer incompetence and lunatic inspiration that we will soon come to know and love by sticking this grim ordeal right at the start of the movie, with no context at all, causing impatient viewers the world over to exclaim “fuck this” and go an find something more rewarding to do, or so I can only imagine.

Those who wait it out will eventually get to see the hands of the monstrous whatever reach the struggling human hands and…. BOOM, it’s a all a dream! A horrible, horrifying nightmare suffered by poor Alex, who is going to be our protagonist today.

Alex is a sophomore student who shares a conveniently cardboard-walled house with three of his crazy loser chums. You can tell they’re crazy, because one of them wears shades and a big coat and shorts all the time, and rattles off crap jokes continuously, and because they’ve got one of those sorta Cadillac bonnet shaped things in their living room where the fireplace should be. We know that their pad is filthy, because girls who visit loudly tell them so, making cheap cracks about cobwebs and the like. Yep, they’re crazy, crazy guys alright.

But even crazy free spirits need their sleep, and it seems that Alex’s violent nightmares and increasingly irrational behaviour is starting to cause the chums a great deal of hassle. As they’re striding around on campus one day, they raise the issue with Alex, and one of them reads aloud from a newspaper story about a well-known rock band called, uh, Bodycount (sadly not Ice T’s crew) who were recently found dead on Alcatraz island, having apparently engaged in some kind of gory suicide pact after sneaking away from a guided tour. How exactly Alex’s friends connect this up with his scary dreams I have no idea but…. y’know, it’s just that kinda movie.

What kind of movie exactly? Well specifically, the kind of movie where dreadful, mumbling feckless teenage actors have to deliver dialogue exchanges like…

“Are you hungry?”

“Does an accordion player wear a ring on his pinky finger?”

“Of course not. Are you hungry?”

And you’ll still be scratching your head thinking about accordion players when the action cuts to a neon-lit burger bar / nightclub set-up, where we’re given immediately given another example of the sideways genius of writer/director Logothetis, as, rather than taking us straight from the establishing shot to footage of our characters chowing down, he decides to let his camera roam free for a while, cutting between different tables and giving us random snatches of conversation for a couple of minutes before settling down to the business at hand. Now Robert Altman could do a scene like this, Quentin Tarantino could do a scene like this, but with Logothetis at the controls with his awkward editing and ham-fisted wackiness, you’re simply left completely disorientated, wondering what the hell is going on.

And it’s this constant, low level “what the hell?” factor that proves to be ‘Hell Island’s saving grace. Surprisingly, this wasn’t even Logothetis’ first time out of the stalls on a feature film (he helmed frat-girl comedy Pretty Smart in ’87, apparently), but the mixture of naivety and enthusiasm he brings to both writing and directing pays off wonderfully, allowing the film to veer off into flat-out weirdness again and again where a more seasoned hack would simply have turned in pure blandness. In some ways, ‘Hell Island’ has a similar feel to it to all those oddball movies Herschell Gordon Lewis made where he tried to expand his range beyond smut/gore. You may be aware at all times that you’re watching the work of a lapsadaisical, incompetent freak, but the whole shebang carries with it a joyous sense of random, whimsical humanity, and you just NEVER know what’s coming next.

The storyline is all over the place. It’s like Logothetis had all those ideas floating about in his noggin – the one about the Animal House style student who’s having psychic nightmares, the one about the rock star who dabbles in the occult and comes back from the grave to fight a demon, the one about the satanic confederate general whose spirit is trapped under Alcatraz island by resourceful Native American medicine men – and he just thought, what the hell, I can throw all these together into one movie, it’ll be awesome! And I’ll get Devo to do the music too – those guys rule!

That the finished film ended up being far less than the sum of its sloppily thrown together parts must have served as a cruel lesson to the young director in the chasm between thought and expression.

So anyway, in brief: Alex’s nightmares begin to accelerate to the point where dream and reality start to collapse, and he begins to manifest actual telekinetic phenomena and the like. This attracts the attention of one of his professors, who as well as being an, ahem, hot babe in the parlance of our characters, is also an expert in experimental parapsychology, the occult and… well, you know. “This book will explain everything”, she exclaims, thunking down a huge, dusty sketchbook full of authentic witchdoctor doodling. Nice one.

The Professor decides that Alex’s night terrors must be emanating from Alcatraz island because… well, I dunno, look at the picture on the front of the video box - where else would they be coming from? She decides that Alex must go to Alcatraz to… well, again, I don’t know exactly - to face down his demons, or to exorcise the evil powers, or just to look around, or whatever. Alex doesn’t want to go, because he’s a useless, boring, obstinate git (did I fail to mention that?), but naturally we’re not going to let his grousing spoil the flow of our movie any more than it has already, so off everyone goes on a midnight mission across the bay in a rubber dinghy.

And when I say everyone, I mean everyone. I know it’s a cheap shot to pick on barely coherent horror movies for this sort of thing, but really: if you were making an illegal midnight trip to an abandoned prison island to possibly confront some ill-defined evil entity, would you REALLY insist that all your housemates came along with you? And all their girlfriends? And your sorta-possible-future girlfriend, who’s still trying to work out how she feels about you being such a useless, boring obstinate git?

I suppose stretching a point, you could say they all wanted to go along to help out their friend, except that a) none of them seem to like him much (see the whole ‘useless, boring, obstinate git’ thing), and b) several of those present loudly and persistently complain about how they want to go home. What’s going on? Did somebody herd them into the boat at gunpoint?

Anyway, Alcatraz. Apparently it is spooky and deserted, and has no security measures whatsoever, so you and your pals can pitch up in your boat at any hour of the day or night and just sorta wander around. Who knew? Disappointingly though, it seems that, aside from a few moody establishing shots, ‘Hell Island’ was not actually filmed on Alcatraz, and the rest of the movie is in fact realised via a series of poorly lit backlot ‘exteriors’ and really dull looking sets. Dragsville, man.

Alex’s brother (the most physically imposing of those present) swiftly gets himself possessed by the big evil whatever, and turns into some kind of super-strong vampire creature that proceeds to spent the rest of the running time picking off the others one by one in a thoroughly tedious manner. Because after all, this is a cheap ‘80s horror, right? That’s what happens.

Don’t fall asleep yet though, because – hey! – here’s Toni Basil! Who’s she again, you might well ask, giving me the opportunity to snort with derision and point you in the direction of, like, the best song EVER, dude:

If we were speaking in person, I’d do the handclaps for you and we could all have a ‘Wayne’s World’ style singalong. In fact, Toni Basil did loads of great songs – check this one out! This also seems a good time to dredge up the perennial believe-it-or-not pop fact that she actually began her career as one of the girls in the graveyard acid trip sequence in “Easy Rider”! She also appeared in “Five Easy Pieces” and Dennis Hopper’s “The Last Movie”, and directed the video for Talking Heads “Once in a Lifetime”, amongst other things. So yeah, before you instinctively start trying to work out how old she was when doing her pop princess bit in the early ‘80s, let’s simply agree that this woman is all kinds of awesome and move on.

In ‘Hell Island’, Ms Basil portrays the ghost of recently departed rock star Sammy Mitchell, who, if not exactly the most charismatic dead rock star in history, certainly brings a new spark of interest to what was otherwise looking to wind down into a pretty dull movie. Supposedly, Sammy Mitchell was a terrifying heavy metal vixen who “performed on stage with real cadavers”, or so we’re informed. In yet another idea that must have sounded good on paper, being a ghost allows Sammy to appear in every scene in a different, outrageous outfit. Unfortunately, filtered through the reality of the perpetually perky and not-at-all-metal Toni Basil and a costume designer with limited resources and a Boy George fixation, this character, who must have leaped into Logothetis’ imagination as some kind of flaming Siouxsie Sioux meets King Diamond spectre, emerges somewhat sartorially underwhelming.

Another thing that’s somewhat underwhelming is Devo’s score for the movie. It’s pleasant enough, but for such an idiosyncratic band, they haven’t half gone out of their way to produce some generic, one-size-fits-all horror movie music here. So they do a Frizzi-esque “eerie calm with synths” main theme, and they do some Goblin-esque “running around music” with rock guitars, and that’s about it really. Any Devo freaks checking out the movie for evidence of their heroes involvement are liable to come away disappointed, then as now.

It’s interesting to note though that the Toni Basil / Devo connection runs a lot deeper than just this movie – turns out she dated the band’s Gerald Casale for a while, and that she re-recorded a whole batch of Devo songs in the mid-eighties and did goofy MTV-friendly videos for several of them, as part of what seems to have been a concerted (albeit unsuccessful) effort to help the band break into the mainstream pop market. Which seems to beg the question: who brought who to the production of ‘Hell Island’? I’m guessing that Basil was probably on board first, simply because, whilst I’m not the biggest Devo fan in the world, I do respect their way of doing things, and I’d imagine that if they decided to get involved with a horror movie, they’d probably pick one a bit more distinctive and less crummy than this. That, and the slight and derivative nature of the music they produced for the film would also seem to belie an overall lack of interest.

Anyway, back to the movie, it soon becomes clear that Toni’s main role is going to be as EXPOSITION LADY, and as such she rattles through a double-quick, flashback-aided summary of precisely what the hell is going on, relating how Alcatraz is in fact haunted by the vengeful spirit of a satanic ‘commandant’ (did Civil War era American prisons really have ‘commandants’…? Oh, never mind…) who was burned alive on the island by Indian witchdoctors way back before the prison was established, and how she herself was once a mild-mannered, book-ish chick before an interest in the occult led her to take on the role of an exhibitionist heavy metal star, and how the crowning achievement of her magickal career was going to involve locating and taking command of the super-powerful evil spirit which the witchdoctors had buried in a vessel in a crypt on the island, only.. (pauses for breath)… only actually it was too powerful for her to control and got all unleashed and killed her and her band, so now she’s used beyond the grave dream projection to summon Alex, who, for some fucked up reason, has been chosen to banish the evil. Phew.

All of which is frankly a lot more interesting than watching more lethargic stalk-n’-kill sequences on boring, grey-painted faux-prison sets, so I wish they’d taken the time to expand on it all a bit, but no such luck.

Next we’re treated to a bit more script/directorial weirdness, as all the characters who have died thus far start popping up as ghosts that only Alex can see, and bitching at him as he tries to go about his banishing-the-evil-whatever duties, leading to lots of “huh? Has he done crazy? He’s talking to himself!” cutaways to the still living characters, and a certain amount of confusion regarding who’s dead, who’s alive and who’s turned evil, further stretching the coherence of a script that by this stage only makes the haziest sort of sense at the best of times.

And… well, so it goes on. If you guessed that the rat-infested tunnel / shambling monster footage from the movie’s opening sequence was going to make a reappearance at the finale, well done, you guessed right.

So, do you reckon Alex and his kinda-sorta girlfriend and the lady Professor will successfully banish the big evil?

Do you think he’ll manage to get over the fact that his demonically possessed brother just massacred most of his friends with surprising ease?

Do you think Toni Basil will duet with Devo over the end credits?

I think you know the answers just as well as I do.

Is ‘Hell Island’ actually worth tracking down or watching though…? Well, does an accordion player wear a ring on his pinky finger?

1 comment:

JRSM said...

This review is so great that I am stupidly tempted to watch this film. It just keeps getting better as you go along. Box artwork like the crappy video games I used to play in 1985! Devo! Cheating dream sequences! Plasma balls! Alcatraz! TONY BASIL! Holy shit!