Monday, March 20, 2017

"You Couldn't Hold Her Like a Moth" - Death Screams (1982)

Death Screams (1982) is a celebrated example of the slasher film cycle that burned so brightly in the very late 1970s and the very early 1980s. Filmed in North Carolina, Death Screams, also known as House of Death, is a fine regional contribution to that revered subgenre, and has the further advantage of being directed by a former child actor from a 1950s sitcom.

Again, and with great frustration, I must list examples of esteemed critics that fail to see the brilliance of the film we are discussing. Several examples follow from IMDB. Reviewer heosh2494 writes, “It's full of lame actors, a bad script, slack pacing, among other things.” Reviewer Dana Volkmer-Jones: “In addition to the movie having terrible acting, thirty-something teenagers, and a lifted soundtrack, there didn't seem to be much motive or plot.” And RareSlashersReviewed writes,  “The story is also a headache of a conundrum with sub-plots sprouting out but never getting fully resolved.”

Although it is not my fault such short-sighted critics ignore the finer qualities of Death Screams, it is my responsibility to set them straight with a discussion of this powerful slasher film.

The film opens at night, near a waterfall, where a young couple makes out on a motorcycle. Although the difficulties inherent in foreplay atop a motorcycle, not to mention getting an unmentioned body part stuck in an unmentioned zipper, complicate their amorous activities, the man wants to wait until 10:00, when a train will pass nearby and "if we time it out right, I promise I can make this a night that you won't forget for the rest of your life."

The train approaches. The couple scream and bleed from their mouths. Perhaps the motorcycle was too close to the train tracks. The couple and the motorcycle fly into the air and land in the nearby river.

As the titles are presented, the film shows the sinking bodies in slow motion while a magnificent, bombastic title theme plays. The music is equal parts TV cop show theme and orchestral crescendo, complete with a long drum solo. The theme is a wonderful way to start a small-town slasher film.

We next see vignettes of life in a small southern town: a pre-teen boy tries to steal a Hustler magazine, a woman stocking grocery shelves drops some cola cans, some college students organize little league spring practice, and a waitress trades innuendos with everyone in a diner.

The narrative narrative narrows its focus to the college students, Kathy and Bobby, as they prepare to leave town for college.

At night, the woman who dropped the cola cans walks home alone, crossing the train tracks. She is startled when a train passes by with no warning, but she survives, unlike the motorcycle couple. For a moment the audience wonders if the slasher in this film will be a phantom train that sneaks up on its victims--a frightening concept indeed.

The woman, Lily,  arrives home and helps her grandmother peel apples in the kitchen. The grandmother gossips and demeans everyone in town: "If his brains were TNT, he couldn't muster a good fart." She believes her granddaughter shouldn't settle. "You're worth big things," she tells the young woman, profoundly.

At the carnival the next day, the hijinks include hopping on moving merry-go-rounds, a kissing booth whose prices change depending on the potential customer, and an impromptu Jack Benny impression.

Shots of the motorcycle couple floating down the river are intercut throughout the small-town scenes, reminding the audience that something sinister is going on, though nobody in town is aware of it.

Back at the carnival, all the young people get together and decide to have a party at the river that night. The stated incentives for the party include a big bonfire, booze, a tape deck, and a seance at the presumably river-adjacent cemetery. The college students then have fun on rickety carny rides and an early 1980s bounce house.

(It should be noted that about 40 minutes have passed in the film and, to this film's credit and unusually for a slasher film, there have been no murders, unless we count the mysterious train-related deaths of the motorcycle couple in the opening minutes.)

After the carnival, a young woman ties her garter belt around her forehead and summarily gets an arrow in the shoulder. She runs through a field to the carousel, which is surprisingly empty in the middle of the day. Surreally, the carousel begins to move, and then an unseen assailant finishes the job by enclosing the girl's head in a plastic bag. The first murder has occurred.


 The film also develops a clever subplot with a handyman named Casey, who has suffered brain damage due to a car accident. It is a mark of the film's incisiveness that Casey works at the baseball field (referencing Casey at the Bat) and he has a model train in his bedroom (referencing Casey, Jr.). The mumbling, moaning Casey is also a kleptomaniac and a traditional red herring, as his mother warns him not to hurt anyone.

At their house, Lily and her grandmother discuss Lily's love life and her late mother, who died giving birth to Lily. "Your mama was so beautiful, so full of life. You couldn't hold her like a moth."

"I have to grow," Lily says. "I just can't stop existing."

The narrative continues by introducing some more intertwined stories. The diner waitress Ramona tries to seduce baseball coach Neil Marshall, who rebuffs her. The rotund sheriff blames Casey the disabled handyman for the death of the sheriff's son because Casey was the driver in a car crash. 

Then a man is murdered in a garage with a long, bloody blade. The victim cries, "Ow!" as he dies.

The bonfire party by the river is quite mellow; the bonfire is in fact a small campfire.

As couples pair off, one of the girls, Sandy, walks into the woods by herself. In an archetypal slasher movie scene, she removes her clothes and walks into the river to skinny dip alone. This is a prelude to probably the film's strongest suspense scene. Creepily, the bodies of the motorcycle couple drift close to her. She screams and swims to shore, only to meet the business end of the machete. Her corpse floats back into the river.

Meanwhile at the campfire, the college kids suggest, through the medium of Bela Lugosi impressions, a trip to the cemetery in order to tell ghost stories and make love on the crypts. They make their way through the woods to the curious strains of a steel drum band. (It is a testament to the acting that the audience notices only for a second the fact that the tombstones are clearly made of cardboard.)

Once at the cemetery, the group lights some convenient candles and forms a circle near a big tombstone. The jokester of the group appears in a costume to lead the others in a chant that has them repeating, "Oh what an ass I am."

Lily tells a scary story, one you have likely heard before about an escaped maniac and a licking dog. As she recites the climax of the story, a downpour suddenly begins and the group makes its way to a creepy, abandoned old house.

"Careful guys, the floor could be rotten," says one of the kids. They hurry into the house, set up their blankets in the living room, and quickly start a fire in the fireplace. The discussion turns, naturally, to relieving themselves. The kids know without checking that the house is no plumbing, so they suggest to jokester Diddle that he use the facilities in the cemetery. "People use it all the time."

"You mean dead people?" Diddle asks. The others remind him that living people work at the cemetery. He decides to go out to the cemetery by himself, carrying a candle and doing a poor impression of John Wayne.

Shockingly, in the outhouse, the audience is treated to the disturbing image of what appears to be a raccoon or a cat emerging from the outhouse hole. Diddle simply jokes, "I'm gonna be constipated for the rest of my life."

His statement turns out to be true, ironically, as the other kids sneak up to the outhouse to play a trick on Diddle, but are surprised to find his bloody body hanging upside down from the outhouse ceiling.

Bombastic music blares as they carry the body into the house. "Somebody slit him from ear to ear!"

The next victim is decapitated in a pickup truck as he ventures out to get the police.

Following slasher film tradition, the remaining 10 minutes of Death Screams are filled with college students running through the woods and discovering the gory remains of their friends, who have been done in by offscreen murders that appear to have taken only seconds to commit.

Yellow-shirted Coach Neil Marshall, who has discovered his dismembered friends in the forest, runs back toward the house screaming "People!" to warn his remaining friends. He trips into the traditional open grave, but he meets a bloody end as the killer chops off his hands with a machete.

The friends are picked off one after another, as any touch with the machete is immediately fatal.

The climax occurs as the survivors retreat to a second-floor bedroom in the abandoned house. The door swings open and the killer enters. He wears what appears to be a black neoprene suit and says, "Another slut! Just like mama!" as he attacks the survivors.

As he approaches Lily, he has a flashback to an erotic encounter with topless showgirls. His hesitation is enough to allow Lily to slit the man's throat with a piece of window glass. Then the killer jumps up, rushes through the room, crashes through the window, and falls into the cellar.

For good measure, the sheriff, who has just arrived outside, shoots the killer repeatedly in the head. (The sheriff is played by William T. Hicks, who played the evil banker Mr. Sharpe in 1981's A Day of Judgment.)

Later, after the ambulances have arrived, Lily asks the sheriff, "Why?"

"I don't know," says the sheriff profoundly. "Let's get you home."

The end credits roll over a shot of the three dead bodies in the river, dead and forgotten.

Death Screams/House of Death was directed by the late David Nelson, most famous for playing himself in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Mr. Nelson also appeared in Peyton Place (1957), which might help explain why Death Screams is as much a drama about small-town life as it is a slasher film. The many scenes of the college students interacting in various places in the little North Carolina town are convincing, heartfelt, and nostalgic. It is only slightly perplexing that these scenes take up over an hour of the film's 91-minute running time.

Speaking of perplexing, probably the film's greatest strength is that the ending is both concrete and ambiguous at the same time. While many slasher films play up the mystery of the killer's identity, the reveal in Death Screams is far more existential.

That is to say, I could not tell who the killer was, even though he is clearly shown in the climactic scene. The killer knew his victims, and particularly Lily, but I must admit that his resemblance to previously established characters escaped me.

Perhaps the killer was Casey, the handyman who had suffered brain damage. If so, he looked much different earlier in the film, where he was somewhat overweight, than in the climax, where he appeared quite fit in black neoprene. Furthermore, the killer in the climax did not slur his words or act brain damaged, though his previous behavior could have been some kind of ruse.

The killer's connection to Lily must be the key to his identity. Could he be Lily's absent father, or perhaps a long-lost brother? It must also be the key to his motives for killing mostly sexually active college students in his small North Carolina town. A future viewing might shed light on this fascinating aspect of the film, which elevates it from a standard regional slasher film to a new level of enthralling ambiguity.

(I have recently found information online leading me to believe that the killer is in fact Coach Neil Marshall, a character that I believe had been killed earlier. Perhaps another viewing of this film is in order.)