Monday, June 5, 2017

"An Unusual History Which Dates Back to His Childhood" - Hollowgate (1988)

Everybody likes a good slasher film, but it takes something special to elevate a slasher film to the realm of the truly great. Hollowgate (1988) is elevated by the brilliant and original concept of centering its kills around Halloween tropes, and by the powerfully quirky performance of its leading man.

Not everybody in your universe appreciates such originality, however. On IMDB, review sgtking says that the film was made by people "who obviously know nothing about making a good Horror film, or a good film in general." Similarly, reviewer HumanoidOfFlesh on IMDB writes, "This one is easily one of the worst horror films I have ever seen.... The storyline is so dumb, that you'll just shake your head in complete disbelief at some of the things these teenagers do. The acting is awful and there is no suspense whatsoever." Tom Damon, also on IMDB, writes, "Hollow Gate is so unoriginal, so cheap and shoddily produced, so very badly acted, and so dark at times, that it will come across as a complete and utter waste of time."

I must clearly and definitively show you why these reviews are obviously and blatantly incorrect. Thus, I will describe the film to you in great detail so you can see how brilliant and original it truly is.

After an atmospheric titles sequence invoking childhood Halloween decorations, the film opens at a costume party. Scenes of apple bobbing are intercut with dozens of repeated shots of a man drinking alcohol in a noirish kitchen.

Finally, it all comes to a head in a hellishly frightening scene. The alcoholic berates his clown-costumed son, nearly drowning him in the apple-bobbing tub. 

Then the man goes back to drinking alone in the kitchen.

The boy's grandmother confronts the man. "I told you never to interfere with me and my son!" he 

"And just how do you know that he is your...son?" she retorts as she leaves the room. She comforts the boy, who says ominously, "I hate Halloween."

The film cuts to 10 years later on Halloween. A couple dressed in white bathrobes and red capes gets drunk on a picnic blanket. He squeezes her leg erotically. In an incisive violation of the audience's expectations, the couple is not attacked by a slasher. They are not even being watched from the bushes.

After making out, the couple decides to drive to a gas station and pull a Halloween prank on the creepy attendant, Mark Walters.

The diabolical prank consists of giving the attendant a dollar for gas and asking him to clean the windshield. As he does so, the pranksters grope each other in the front seat, stirring up Mark Walters's voyeuristic tendencies.

Voyeurism quickly turns, as it often does, to murder as Mark lights a fuse leading on the car's gas tank. The couple, along with the car, explodes.


Mark calmly calls the fire department, tells them there is a burning car with passengers, and tells them his name as well. "By the way," he says, "happy Halloween!" Then he laughs maniacally.

The film cuts to the future again, now labeled as 2 years later, also on Halloween night. Mark is still at large, and still using his real name. When a shopgirl rejects his advances, he locks her in her shop, which conveniently has multiple carving knives available for the taking. She takes the biggest knife to ward off Mark.

"I just want to take you to the movies," he tells her at knifepoint.

"I don't want to go to the movies," she replies.

He strangles her.

Showing his preternatural mastery of suspense, director Ray Di Zazzo cuts to a thrilling scene of men having a meeting in a law office. Mark's family wants to have him locked up, but all the test results show he is normal. "Your honor," explains the doctor who knows the test results, "the boy has an unusual history which dates back to his childhood. I wouldn't want him coaching my son's baseball team, but he has no place in jail or a mental institution at this time."

In addition to the great privilege of watching the thrilling meeting, the audience learns that Mark, though clearly an adult, is in his wealthy grandmother's custody, and she wants to keep custody.

Said grandmother has a habit of conversing with her grandson via an intercom through a locked door. "It's such a nice night, I thought you'd like to sit with me while I work on my new rug," she tells him over the speaker.

She unlocks the door and gives Mark a hug. They discuss hosting a Halloween party next week.

Then he kills her with a pair of scissors because he has stopped taking his medications.

We cut to the standard group of young people in a van who are unduly excited to reach Oklahoma due to less stringent alcohol laws. In another subversion of expectations, there are only four passengers--two men and two women--in the van instead of the traditional five young people.

Because they are driving to a Halloween party at a place called The Hangar, the young people stop at a costume shop. After a long discussion of their finances, the group is offered a free pink wig if they deliver a shipload of costumes to Hollowgate, an estate on the way to The Hangar. Of course, they accept the offer because they are in dire need of a free wig.


Hollowgate, of course, turns out to be Mark's grandmother's house. As they wait at the front door to drop off the costumes, the girls joke about spending the night in the mansion. Their long-suffering friend Alan uses the familiar expression, "You guys are just a bundle of laughs."

But proverbial bundles of laughs are not in store for the two couples. Mark accepts the costumes and gives them a tour of the house, but he deftly pickpockets Alan's keys and then shocks the group by showing them the corpse of his grandmother, scissors in her eyes.

"It's Halloween, boys and girls! Just a bunch of us old nutcakes, huh? So what do you say we have us"

They run to the van but can't find the keys, so they all just run down the driveway, only to find the gate electrified. They are trapped on the grounds.

At this point, director Di Zazzo cuts to a police car, where the veteran police officer is explaining Mark's case to his rookie partner for five minutes. It seems Mark was convicted for killing a dog, but his grandmother fixed up a mini-hospital in her estate complete with doctors and nurses just to keep Mark confined at home. "That kid is dangerous. Real dangerous. Hey listen, you hungry yet? You like meatball sandwiches?"

Back at Hollowgate, the kids immediately reach a fever pitch of hysteria. Unlike the heros of many lesser movies who show bravery, resilience, and cleverness, the two couples trapped behind the fence are reduced to base cowardice.

After much discussion, Billy bravely volunteers to explore a garden shed five feet from their hiding place. The plan is to find shovels or some other implements to perhaps dig under the electrified fence. Billy carefully walks around the shed, though for some reason he walks right past a shovel that appears to have been used to chop firewood.

Finally, Billy opens a door and enters a garage. There are two cars inside. He checks one, presumably for a set of keys. No luck. Then he checks the second car. Again, no luck. "Dang," he says.

Suddenly, Mark springs out with a knife. "Happy Halloween, gook!" he cries, stabbing Billy in the chest. He is dressed in some kind of camouflage outfit, so the racist epithet must indicate he is wearing a Vietnam soldier Halloween costume.

Billy stumbles out of the garage and back toward his friends, but Mark picks up a hatchet and throws it at Billy's head. It is truly unfortunate for the kids that Billy had not seen the selfsame hatchet previously, or the murder victim might have been the costumed mental patient.

After such a horrifying sequence, the film must give its audience some time to breathe. The director cuts to a long sequence of the two policeman parking at their favorite purveyor of meatball sandwiches.

But soon it is time to return to the surviving kids, who are whimpering in the bushes, distraught about losing Billy. "Oh God, I loved him," says Mandy. "Did you see him? Did you see him? He just...he just...oh my God..."

"You gotta hang on, man. We all gotta hang on, okay?" Alan says inspirationally, choking on his sobs.

They engage in a group hug.

Seconds later, there is a long discussion about how to cross a barren grassy field. They decide to run across one at a time. First Alan, then Kim, then Mandy.

The tense sequence begins. Alan runs across the field. He signals for the others. Kim runs across the field. She stumbles, but she reaches Alan on the other side. Finally, it is Mandy's turn. She darts out and runs into the open--

--but then she sees it. Mark, dressed as a cowboy, is driving a large power lawnmower through the field. Slowly, he engages its four sets of blades and drives it through the grass. It moves at a frightening pace, reaching speeds of 2-3 miles per hour.

Then Mark stands up and shoots Mandy in the hip with a rifle.

For good measure, he also shoots Alan in the left thigh.

His plan succeeding, Mark drives the lawnmower over Mandy in a scene whose effectiveness is reduced only slightly by the fact that Mandy and the lawnmower are never seen together in the same shot.

The increasingly whiny Alan and Kim find a golf cart. They hug each other while Alan stammers, "What the fuck are we gonna do?"

Fortunately for the couple, Alan's leg does not appear to bother him after the gunshot. Unfortunately for the couple, they have difficulty finding the key to the golf cart.

They find that it is all part of Mark's next intriguing plot. Dressed as a fox hunter, Mark reveals several cages with two adorable yellow labs. The dogs have not been fed for a while.

Finally, fate intervenes, albeit at a slow pace. As the policemen wait for their meatball sandwiches, they strike up a conversation with the costume store owner, who describes exactly what happened earlier. Suspicious that costumes were sent to Hollowgate despite the fact that the policemen saw no lights on in the mansion when they drove by, they phone the mansion. Nobody answers.

At the mansion, the film approaches its climax. Mark, dressed as a doctor, has tied Kim to a bed. He menaces her with a butcher knife, promising to cut into her brain and remove all her bad feelings.

He intends to anesthetize Kim by making her drink lemon fresh ammonia, but she gets a hand free and splashes the liquid in his eyes. It takes him a few minutes to recover, and she takes advantage of the time by removing all her straps.

Then she stabs him in the stomach with the butcher knife.

The police pull up to the house, and the audience worries momentarily that the stickers spelling "Oklahoma State Police" on their door will slip off.

Inside the house, Mark is recovering nicely from his stab wound. He chases Kim around with the butcher knife. Soon, she quite easily renders him harmless with a punch in the stab wound.

As is traditional in films akin to the slasher variety, Mark is capable of surviving a considerable amount of bodily damages. He lunges for Kim.

The director cross-cuts Mark menacing Kim with the policemen kicking open the door.

Finally, the climax occurs in Mark's grandmother's bedroom. While Mark prepares to carve into Kim, the police burst in and shout, "Boy!" in a passable, though unexplainable, Angus Scrimm impression. The police shoot Mark twice. He falls dead onto Kim while she screams (or, more accurately, she says, "Ugh!").

In the film's shocking coda, we see poor Kim as a patient in a hospital. The door opens, and she sees Mark enter her room with a bloody knife. "Time for your medication, Kim. What's a few drugs? What's a little surgery?"

She does not reply to his sensible questions.

But it is really not Mark at all, but a doctor and two orderlies.

We then see Kim in a post-surgery crib, her head bandaged.

We see her open her eyes.

The end credits roll.

Hollowgate is a somewhat unusual title in the filmography of prolific producer Joseph Merhi, founder of City Lights Home Video and Las Vegas pizza impresario. While Merhi directed such classics as Epitaph (1988), The Newlydeads (also 1988) and L.A. Crackdown II (also 1988), he allowed Ray Di Zazzo to direct the shot-on-video slasher Hollowgate.

Like many slasher films, and like few other film genres, Hollowgate presents the point of view that bullies are victimized more than their victims. And also the point of view that gay men should be ridiculed and scorned. And the point of view that films should show police officers having long discussions at sandwich shops.

While most of us in the audience might disagree with these points of view, it is a breath of fresh air to see them presented with such clarity on the screen, and at the very least such a presentation will make the audience members think. For that, we should all be grateful.