Saturday 17 December 2011

VHS Purgatory:
The Lamp
(Tom Daley, 1987)


You’re not quite getting the full effect from the scan above, but the central panel on the cover of this VHS is actually a totally awesome hologram, depicting some evil spirits or somesuch emerging from the genie’s lamp, then disappearing again when you tilt it away from the light. The surrounding ‘frame’ bit is made of thick cardboard, glued to the front of the box on top of the plastic insert/wallety bit (or whatever you call it) with a bond that has held fast for nigh on twenty-five years. Damn, somebody really put some effort into this thing.


I don’t usually go in for the cold, impersonal, what-the-hell-am-I-doing-with-my-life feeling of buying old video tapes off ebay, preferring to hunt them out tooth & claw on the ground, but when I happened to see this one sitting there with no bids, I had to bite. I think it was about £4.50 including postage or something? Clearly one of the more impressive items in my small collection of big box VHSs anyway, and after staring at the packaging for a few hours, I thought the least I could do was give the movie inside a whirl.


Essentially, ‘The Lamp’ is a routine circa ‘87 slasher enlivened by the fact that the slashing is being carried out not by some doofus with mother issues, but by an enraged djinn. It is better known in the US under the title ‘The Outing’, and if you can tell me why that is in any way a less lame name for a horror film than ‘The Lamp’, perhaps you should consider a job in movie distribution? (Why the video company didn’t just rename it ‘BLOODBATH IN THE SEX MUSEUM’ and dig themselves a new money pit I’ll never understand, but maybe in the post-video nasty era the prevailing wisdom was to play it cool and keep things bland..?)

Shot in Texas, this is basically a pretty boilerplate ‘80s independent production, rendered interesting thanks to the wealth of eccentricities necessitated by the ‘murderin’ genie’ conceit. Put it this way: I don’t think the filmmakers were at all into weirdness, but by choosing to film a story in which the antagonist is an incorporeal demon who lives in a lamp, they found themselves having to get a least moderately weird, if you see what I mean.

Indeed, there is a faint vibe of surreality hanging over proceedings throughout, exacerbated by the fact that, whilst the technical aspects of the film are flatly proficient, the scripting and acting is extremely poor throughout. I mean, don’t get me wrong, that’s not necessarily a criticism. Most of the films I write rave reviews of here are somewhat lacking in what might be conventionally regarded as nuanced performances and razor-sharp plotting. But still, there’s something going on here that is just… not good. Occasionally amusing, but all the same – not good. Most of the cast appear totally disconnected in a dead-eyed stare sorta way, counterbalanced by an occasional proponent of scenery-chewing frenzy, with no one on hand to actually hit that necessary middleground that I believe we term ‘acting’.

At least some of this lack of commitment can probably be blamed on the writing, which has a definite ‘first draft’ kinda feel to it, as if the writer (or writers, I can’t be bothered to check the credits) banged out a rough outline to get the basic sequence of events down, with some placeholder dialogue that they’d tighten up later, after they'd done some research and redrafting to make all the exposition and continuity a bit less goofy. Then they went for a long weekend in, I dunno, Lake Tahoe or somewhere, and returned to find that – oh no! – the damn fools had already started shooting it!

So, things kick off with a trio of scuzzy, all-purpose low-lives who are breaking into a remote house owned by a little old lady, with the intention of stealing some money and/or treasure which they seem pretty sure she has. The leader of this half-assed crew is a pleasantly crazed individual who goes hilariously beserk when the riches he is anticipating fail to emerge, banging on the walls with his fists, kicking stuff around and nixing the old lady with a battleaxe (gosh, that was pretty violent). His two accomplices meanwhile assert their scuzzy, low-life credentials beyond doubt by getting ripped on musty old hooch from the cellar, getting naked and making out in the… hang on a minute, you’re telling us this bed-ridden old lady who lives on her own in a dilapidated house in the middle of the woods has a swimming pool? A fairly clean and functional looking one, even?

Well, why not. Stranger things have happened. Like errant genies emerging from lamps and killing the fuck out of everyone with magical powers, for instance. Axe-to-the-face, telekinesis, scuzzy low-life boobs = opening sequence accomplished!

As is standard procedure when elderly people die under violent and mysterious circumstances, the old lady’s possessions are immediately entrusted to the local Natural History Museum, where we now join the curator and his assistant as they enthusiastically catalogue all her old crap, scanning it with some kind of 80s-tastic computer imaging software. I could spin out a paragraph or two questioning why staff at a Natural History Museum are seemingly operating like high-tech rag & bone men, studying man-made objects which do not even fleetingly fall within the remit of ‘natural history’, but, please… let’s just move on.

The curator’s daughter is our main character / final girl, although she doesn’t do a great deal to justify that position. She looks grumpy, occasionally wears an unflattering hat, and guilt-trips her dad about what a bad father he is. Aside from that, she’s just on the screen a lot. More interesting, at least in theory, is her irritating ex-boyfriend, who is some kind of porcine quasi-punk bully. Something of a misguided trendsetter in his own way, he drives a Mercedes Benz and wears a sleeveless collared/buttoned checked shirt and skinny tie. He’s very ‘no rules’ with his aggressively thuggish demeanour, casual racism and sub-human problem-solving abilities, but still, I can well imagine the authors of Destroy All Movies scrutinising his scenes and concluding that he doesn’t quite make the punkoid grade. Just as well really. He gets very little done, and is generally a pain in the ass.

The headmaster at the school is a cool black dude. Porcine bully guy pulls a knife and gives him some lip, to which he responds “Son, do you want to know the meaning of the words Black Power? Cos if you do I’ll wipe the floor with your ugly white ass!” Pow! Not since ‘Savage Streets’ have I encountered a headmaster I can so readily get down with. In another great scene in this section of the movie, the kids are in a class where the teacher (who has a thing going with the curator/dad) is telling them all about Vlad the Impaler and (of course) djinns. What the hell was that supposed to be? Monster class? Why didn’t I get to do that one at school?

That afternoon, teacher takes everyone on a field trip to the Natural History Museum, where Main Character uses her knowledge of the high tech security system and access to dad’s keys to allow her friends to sneak off and hide until after dark, so they can illicitly spend the night in the museum. Unfortunately, CCTV and 24 hour security guards (and perhaps lack of shooting time at the museum location) mean that they have to lock themselves in the basement, where they’re all, like, oh, right, we went to all this trouble just so we can spend the night in an unfurnished basement? – great idea, dude. But they’re a nice bunch, so they try to make the best of it and not hurt Main Character’s feelings too much. They have beer. I have beer. The porcine bully guy and his sidekick are trying to sneak in to cause rapey mischief. The scene is set.

We can probably all guess more or less what happens next, and let it be said that after a fairly shaky first half, ‘The Lamp’ really pulls out the stops from hereon in, with twenty minutes or so of unhinged supernatural carnage that sees our cast decimated in imaginatively gory, crowd-pleasing fashion in double-quick time – this djinn don’t mess around! Seriously, I felt like I thought have brought along a rattle and a foam rubber hand to go with the beer, such was the potential for whooping it up.

The highlight is probably the scene that sees some poor girl bitten to death in a bathtub full of snakes, the result of a credulity stretching sequence of events that I’d like to think was the result of the director sticking his head around the long-suffering scriptwriter’s door one day and shouting “GIRL IN A BATH FULL OF SNAKES – MAKE IT HAPPEN!”, causing him to furiously back-pedal in order to incorporate this vision into a scenario that ostensibly has no snakes and no reason for anybody to take a bath. A stretch and a half, but he made the magic happen.

And you know what else makes the magic happen? Giant, glowing stop-motion creatures voiced by ultra-reverbed Texas DJs, that’s what. There is one. Oh yes. It doesn’t do a great deal, but what can I say – I wasn’t expecting it to be there, but it turned up anyway. Perhaps it was on the lam from the set of one of the many cheapjack movies that promise you a giant stop motion creature and don’t deliver? Anyway, rack up some more points for ‘The Lamp’!
Whilst watching ‘The Lamp’, I somehow got the impression I wasn’t enjoying it. All those excruciating inter-character scenes, all that terrible dialogue and aimless, exploratory padding, must have taken its toll. Reading back through what I’ve just written though, I think I was mistaken. Clearly it was brilliant. A minor classic, perhaps. You should probably check it out.

Oh yes, one more thing worth mentioning: this film has one of the strangest endings I’ve seen for a long time. If anyone reading has seen this thing, then I’d like to know your opinion because.. I just don’t get it. Am I missing something? Let me know.

I’m sure I won’t hitting you with that much of a spoiler if I let slip that the djinn is eventually vanquished, leaving the main girl and the lady teacher as sole survivors, but get this:

Classic ‘the morning after’ establishing shot that sees reporters and emergency services vehicles crowded around the museum. The two survivors are led out and ushered into the back of a police car, and the driver starts the engine.

Close up on Main Girl’s face as she yells “STOP!”.

Cut to her POV: a long shot of a Pepsi delivery truck, with a guy unloading some crates.

Cut back to her face, which freeze frames on a look of horror as the credits roll.

What the…?

I actually rewound and freeze-framed the shot of the Pepsi delivery truck several times, trying to spot some sign of the obligatory ‘the monster lives on’ twist, but no dice. The delivery guy, Pepsi crates, delivery trucks – none of these things have played a role in the film up to this point. Again: am I missing something? Did some pothead assistant editor just put the wrong shot in? You tell me.

End credits prominently thank the Pepsi-Cola Company.

Stay safe out there, readers. Stick to beer.


There’s a trailer on this tape for something called ‘Night Screams’. It looks amazing:


The Goodkind said...

Oh damn. Yeah, I've seen this one and covered it at LVA under the titleThe Outing. Talk about garbage film, whew, this is among the ripest specimens. Your description of The Lamp's absurdity almost makes me want to watch it again.

JESCIE said...

a fitting tagline though, innit?