I just watched six movies in one night so you don’t have to.
What’s a DVD company to do when it has a warehouse full of back catalog titles? Movies that people love, or at least have some nostalgic fondness for, but that aren’t exactly hot sellers? Why, package them together in a nifty new “Fright Pack,” of course!
We’ve got six ’80s-era horror/comedies to pour through here:
• Elvira, Mistress of the Dark
A somewhat famous horror TV host suddenly finds herself out of a job. Fortunately, she learns she has an enormous inheritance to go along with her enormous…well, you know. Now she’s living in small town USA, surrounded by moralistic adults and fun-loving teens. But a mysterious “cookbook” could spell doom for them all.
• Return to Horror High
A group of filmmakers takes over an abandoned high school that was once the site of some brutal murders. But as the crew reenacts the killings before the cameras, someone else is lurking in the shadows reenacting them for real.
• Return of the Killer Tomatoes
After the title beasties were driven off in the first film, it’s now a different world, as all tomatoes have been outlawed. But one sinister scientist has a plan to create his own master race of tomato people. Now the fate of the world is up to two buddies, a sexy female stranger, and the world’s most adorable piece of mutated produce.
• Sleepaway Camp
Everyone’s having an ideal summer at Camp Arawak, with games, swimming, socials, romances, cliques, bullies, and more. Too bad someone’s sneaking around committing murders behind everyone’s backs. The ending must be seen to be believed.
• Transylvania 6-5000
After hearing reports that Frankenstein’s Monster is real, a pair of dim-bulb reporters head off to Transylvania. Their investigation leads them not just to the monster, but also to vampires, werewolves, and the world’s wackiest butler.
In order to get into a prestigious fraternity, two buddies must hire a stripper for an upcoming party. Visiting a club in the seedy part of town, our hapless heroes find more than they bargained for: vicious gangs, bloodsucking monsters, and a mostly-naked Grace Jones (Conan the Destroyer), all out to get them.
So Anchor Bay took six dust-gatherers and bundled them together in a nifty case that looks like a six-pack of beer, complete with a little handle on the top. Cute, but one end of the box is left wide open, so when you’re carrying it around your living room, all six movies are in danger of sliding out at any time. Also, there’s no way of knowing which movie is which without removing all six of them at once. Sure, the box is amusing—but I’d rather it be both amusing and practical.
Now it’s time to take a look at the movies themselves. The question is what order to watch them in? Alphabetical? By year? No, I’ll do what most people who buy this set are likely to do, and watch them in a completely arbitrary manner.
Sleepaway Camp is often considered a genuine classic among ’80s horror, so that’s as good place as any to begin. Everyone talks about the ending, but how’s the rest of the movie? The plot just creeps along, with a lot of high school angst keeping it moving between murders. In a movie like this the tension should increase after every death scene, but in this case there’s an almost-invisible subplot about the camp’s owners keeping them covered up in order to prevent panic and stay in business. So instead, it’s almost like this is two movies—a slasher movie mixed with a teen soap opera.
Ah, here’s Sleepaway Camp’s famous ending. It’s certainly one of the greatest “Oh, my God!” moments in movie history. And yet, I find myself wondering what happened next. I kind of want to see the chaos and madness that followed. On the other hand, leaving that up the to the audience’s imagination is probably a lot scarier than any craziness they could have filmed.
Now I’m about halfway through Sleepaway Camp’s commentary track. It’s a very funny one, with the director and actors making plenty of jokes and pointing out continuity problems, fake mustaches, et cetera. They also hint at a possible fourth movie in the series. I say they should go for it. Freddy and Jason got to duke it out, and Chucky spread his Seed all over movie screens, so why not breathe some new life into this franchise? I think the world is ready.
Two of the movies in this set feature a pre-fame George Clooney (Ocean’s 11), so I’ll watch those next. Return to Horror High barely made a blip on the radar screen when it was released in 1987, but today it gets a lot of praise for being ahead of its time. Wes Craven’s Scream blew the lid off the horror genre years later by adding a self-aware tone and pop culture-laced humor to a scary, whodunit plot. But Horror High can boast that it did this first, and its killer even looks just like the one in Scream.
Whereas Sleepaway Camp’s ending is a real baseball bat to the face, Horror High piles on the surprise endings, one after another after another. It gets ludicrous after a while. To say any more would mean spoiling the film, but know that nit-pickers will get plenty of mileage trying to figure out the various inconsistencies of the plot. There are very few extras on this one, but I really like the trailer with the creepy cheerleader. She could have become a horror icon all by herself.
Although George Clooney is only in the last movie for a few scenes, that’s not the case in Return of the Killer Tomatoes. Clooney has a much bigger part this time around, as the hero’s horny best friend. As the title suggests, this one’s a flat-out comedy, with no attempts at actual horror, action, or even story. It’s one of those really wacky comedies, the kind where characters break the fourth wall and complain about having to add product placement to their scripts. A product of its time, the movie begins with a false start, as if to trick viewers into thinking they’re watching a TV show. This suggests that the filmmakers knew the movie’s future would be home video, not the theaters.
I can’t believe Return of the Killer Tomatoes hasn’t ended yet. This “anything for a laugh” mentality gets to be a little too much after a while. Take, for example, one of the flick’s most celebrated scenes, in which a serious discussion is interrupted for no reason by a lengthy fistfight between a group of cowboys and a gang of ninjas. The message here from the filmmakers is, “Look at how silly we are! Look at how much we can get away with!” Gore lovers will want to shy away from this one, because with its PG rating, the filmmakers have made the whole thing somewhat family friendly, complete with a cute, fuzzy puppet tomato. Fans of juvenile jokes and cheap gags will be in heaven, though.
I’m about halfway through the set, watching Transylvania 6-5000. I like the concept—two dim-witted reporters tracking down the truth about famous monsters. And I like the cast—Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park), Ed Begley Jr. (Meet the Applegates), Geena Davis (The Long Kiss Goodnight), Jeffrey Jones (Ed Wood), Carol Kane (The Princess Bride), and Michael Richards (Seinfeld), among others. With all that talent, it’s a shame the movie is so bland. There are a number of exceptionally long takes with the camera capturing two characters in one shot while they rattle off pages of script at once. It’s kind of like watching Clerks, but without the wonderfully whacked dialogue. So much of the movie is plot and exposition that the only humor is a few bits of slapstick here and there. It’s just an unfunny comedy. Even its title is a dated joke. Back in the ’80s, most kids had never heard of the song “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” so I wonder how many of them know it today. This movie could have used some of Return of the Killer Tomatoes’s madcap sensibilities, while that one could have used just a little bit more of this one’s plot.
Now I’m going through all the extras on Transylvania 6-5000. The commentary shows just how much of a labor of love the movie was for everyone involved. There’s also a lot of talk about how the movie was made in an actual castle on location in Yugoslavia. That has me thinking about another problem I have with the film. There’s just no sense of atmosphere. Here’s a movie with vampires, werewolves, and Frankenstein’s Monster, and yet it’s all brightly lit and shot like an ordinary sitcom. Even on a low budget film there are ways to add a little gloom and doom, which would have better helped the laughs. The trailers make the movie look a lot funnier than it is, and the cartoon-like storyboards are quite charming.
I don’t think I’m going to make it. I just started watching Vamp. It begins as yet another “horny college buddies out for a good time” comedy. You know, I went to college for a total of five years, and I never acted like college guys in movies. I was too busy doing stuff like studying. Wait, where was I? Oh, yeah, reviewing six movies at once. Like Return to Like Horror High, Vamp alternates between scares and laughs, rather than all-out comedy. Grace Jones is just naturally creepy. She’s even creepier when she’s naked except for a red fright wig, a chrome wire bikini, and some sort of tribal body paint. There are some pretty effective gore effects here, too, and the slapstick humor on this one isn’t too painful. On the minus side, the movie’s green and pink lighting scheme starts to sting the eyes after a while. And for a movie that has all the action taking place in one night, there are quite a few subplots to keep track of. But despite the sometimes-meandering script, it’s a strange but not terrible vampire thriller.
Even though it’s the same hour and a half length as the other films in this set, Vamp feels a lot longer. Every time I think it’s reached the climax, suddenly there’s more movie. Also, a subplot featuring Billy Drago (The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.) as a gang leader is amusing, but could have been excised easily without losing any of the story.
Now it’s time for the extras on Vamp, and there are quite a few. The outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage are quite dull, and the short film, “Dracula Bites the Big Apple,” is amusing yet amateurish. The commentary, on the other hand, is great. The director and three of the actors take the movie apart, going into detail about what works and what doesn’t, while having fun and kidding around at the same time. This is one of those rare cases in which the commentary is almost better than the movie.
I’ve been up all night, the sun is rising, but I must nonetheless watch the sixth and final film, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. This movie just doesn’t know what it wants to be. In some scenes, Elvira (Cassandra Peterson, Elvira’s Haunted Hills) is a tough-talking rock and roll chick, shocking the small-town conservatives around her. But at other times, she’s a role model, befriending the local white-bread teenagers and teaching them important life lessons. Elvira’s usual shtick of raunchy jokes and groan-inducing puns is often at odds with the family-movie plot and setting. Basically, all of the comedy has to come from Elvira herself, because everyone around her is so bland and uninteresting. In Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, another comedy based on a pseudo-celebrity, the filmmakers surrounded Pee-Wee with all sorts of crazy characters to play off of. This established a bizarre fantasy world for the film, such that the entire movie didn’t hinge on one performer’s shoulders. Elvira doesn’t benefit from this sense of invention, sadly; instead, it hopes to generate laughs by having the title character interact with normal folks. As a result, the movie comes across like a five-minute comedy skit stretched out into a full-length movie.
Tell me I’m not seeing what I’m seeing. At the end of her movie, Elvira indulges in an elaborate song and dance number. She’s surrounded herself with half-naked guys dressed like devils wearing those novelty “eyeballs on dangly springs” glasses, and everybody’s all happy and jumping all over the place. Perhaps the combined might of these movies has overwhelmed me, and banished me to some sort of nightmarish dream world, because no way can something this psycho possibly be on my TV screen. And now…is Elvira rapping? My ears! My ears! Then, it ends with what is arguably the most famous shot in the movie. Just think: If this were made today, those swinging tassels would be all CGI.
Is that it? Am I done? I have survived. I am now able to step outside into the fresh air and the sunlight. I have endured the trials of the ’80s low budget horror comedy genre. I’ve seen a dead guy covered with bees. I’ve seen Geena Davis as a half-naked vampire with a bowtie. I’ve seen the world’s shortest chase scene. I’ve seen not one, but two people, in two separate movies, stabbed with high heeled shoes. I’ve seen a Brady sibling eat a hot dog while covered with blood. I’ve seen all this and more, and yet I live to tell the tale.
All six movies get Anchor Bay’s usual excellent treatment in terms of visual quality. There are occasional scratches or grain here and there, but for the most part, they look great for their age. The audio varies from movie to movie, but none show any significant flaws. Although extras are not plentiful, what’s here is good, especially the three commentaries.
This is the definitive “get drunk with your friends and watch a cheesy movie” collection. Here we have lowbrow laughs, low-budget gore, and low expectations. But isn’t that why B-movies have such staying power? Once in a while, you’re in the mood to enjoy something incredibly stupid.
I’m going to go lie down for a while.