Monday, August 21, 2017

"How About Another Beer, Will Ya?" - Moonstalker (1989)

Now we return, as we must, to the late 1980s to revisit a classic slasher film, Moonstalker (1989). Despite the title, Moonstalker is not a werewolf film, but a fine example of the late-period wilderness slasher film.

Let us see what the most respected critics of your universe think about Moonstalker. Surprisingly, and I use the word sarcastically, the reviewers of IMDB are not fans of the film. Reviewer acid burn-10 writes, "There just doesn't seem to be any effort put into this whatsoever, I know that Slashers aren't known for developing characters, but this is ridiculous." Scott_Mercer writes, "This film was indeed well worth 98 cents. 99 cents, I might start to argue with you." Reviewer fanqarm writes, with admirably charming capitalization, "IT IS So Sad. Even though this was shot with film i think it stinks a little bit more than flicks like Blood Lake [and] There's Nothing Out There." (I have not reviewed those last mentioned films yet, but suffice it to say I believe "fanqarm" is incorrect.)

Permit me to refute these respected critics and describe the powerful film that is Moonstalker.

The film begins in a snowy forest with warmly dressed teens dancing to upbeat electronic music around a fire. Unbeknownst to them, the camera is watching them from behind some trees. Is the person represented by the camera's point of view a well-wisher or a ne'er-do-well? As in all horror films of this sort, it is impossible for the audience to know.

Two of the teens walk away from the fire with amorous intent. Cleverly, however, they do not simply find a clearing and fall into each other's arms. Instead, they find a small camping trailer nearby. After first looking through the window to see if anyone is in the well lit trailer, they sneak inside.

The music from the campfire fades.

New music, also a peppy electronic tune, fades up to accompany the camera's point of view shakily approaching the trailer's window.

We now know the person represented by the camera is a voyeur, but we are still in the dark about his or her intentions.

We watch as an axe blade drags across the trailer's outside wall. What could this person's intentions be?

We will never know the newcomer's intentions for sure, because the scene cuts once he or she enters the trailer. However, there is a scream, and blood on the floor when heavy boots walk out of the trailer, so we in the audience suspect something not altogether positive might be occurring.

In the early morning, at another campsite, a middle-aged couple starts grilling burgers and drinking beer. The man, waiting for his wife to bring the burgers out of their camper, asks the age-old question, "How about another beer, will ya?"

The couple's teenage kids, a boy and a girl, are moping around the campsite, bored. The son uses his knife to cut into a tree, where a Smokey the Bear poster has been taped.

The father, Harry, enters the camper to find his wife Vera watching soap operas on a portable TV. Of course, he is incensed because his food is taking so much time. "We gonna cook them barbecue hamburgers outside now!" he insists.

Harry is further incensed when he sees a car and trailer--we recognize the trailer from the screaming teenagers the previous night--pulls up close to his campsite. Harry confronts the old man driving the car, and the old man understands that Harry wants to be alone with his family. In fact, the old man does not hesitate to inform Harry that he raised his son Bernie in these woods. The old man introduces himself as Pop. He agrees to camp on the other side of the campground.

"Just some harmless old guy," says Harry to his wife. "He won't bother us."

We watch as Pop, in the distance, pulls a long-handled axe out of his trunk and starts chopping wood.

At night, Harry feels sorry for the lonely old man so he and his family sit around the campfire with Pop, who tells Harry he is a lucky man. "Two great kids and a pretty little cook like Vera."

Vera blushes at the generous compliment.

Pop also mentions that his son Bernie used to feed the deer out of his hands, so clearly the family is in no danger whatsoever in the woods.

The harmless, good-natured vibe continues as Harry brags about his new motorhome, which has everything from central heating to a microwave. Pop nostalgically tells them Bernie used to say to his mother, "I'm gonna get you a microwave, ma."

As music swells, Pop tells the family that Bernie got sick and was taken to a big state hospital. "Bernie was never the same after that." When asked about the problem, Pop just says it was nerves.

Just as the mystery deepens, it is solved. After the family retires to their motor home, Pop enters the trailer to feed a piece of chocolate cake to the masked and strait-jacketed Bernie, who we see chained to a wall.

Pop reiterates to his son that he broke Bernie out of the hospital to return home, and he tells Bernie about all the luxuries that Harry's family enjoys in their motorhome.

Thus, at the end of the first act, the filmmakers skillfully and clearly explain the premise of the film by solving the mystery and setting up the horrors to come.

Like other, less skills fully made films before it like The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, this part of Moonstalker pits two families against one another. One family is relatively normal--Pop and Bernie, driving home with their stolen trailer. The other family is dysfunctional, even creepy--Harry and his soap opera-obsessed wife and ungrateful kids. The two families are headed for conflict.

When the moon rises and the lights go off in Harry's camper, Pop releases Bernie into the night.

While the daughter has gone outside to drink and smoke and listen to rock music, Harry's family goes to bed. A few minutes later, Harry and Vera are startled to see a brightly lit Bernie at the window.

Needless to say, Bernie murders Harry and his family, except for Harry's daughter, who discovers the murders and runs into the dark, snowy woods, pursued by Bernie.

Here the filmmakers show off their wry sense of political justice, as Pop, carrying the stolen microwave from the motor home, keels over and dies of a heart attack, done in by his own capitalistic greed.

The next phase of the film begins at someplace called Wilderness Counselors Camp, presumably a camp for counselors only, and no campers.

Counselor check-in is run by two young men, a short one wearing glasses named Bobby and a taller one with wavy--one might say dreamy--hair named Ron. In a shocking twist, the short, bespectacled counselor is the one who is successful with the ladies.

The filmmakers take the change in location to introduce some complexity to the plot. Bernie kills one of the counselors-in-training by strangling the man with his chains, then impersonates the counselor, PJ, by losing the strait-jacket and donning the counselor's shades and white cowboy hat.

As he infiltrates the counselor camp, Bernie/PJ runs over Harry's daughter, putting an end to the previous phase of the film.

The filmmakers next honor the tropes of the wilderness slasher by having a young woman take a shower in the shower tent, despite the fact that it is late at night and below freezing, from the look of the snow on the ground. In time-honored slasher fashion, she is interrupted by an unseen visitor whose point of view the camera adopts, and also in time-honored slasher fashion, the visitor turns out to be an amorous colleague. The woman gets dressed so the two can make their way to the supply tent, disrobe, and make love.

Meanwhile, Bernie/PJ finds what must be his childhood home, a cabin on the grounds of the counselor camp with a massive woodpile on the front porch. He lovingly fondles the implements of death hanging on the cabin wall until he finds his favorite, a small--and relatively harmless-looking--dagger that appears to be made of tin, or perhaps aluminum.

After Bernie/PJ slashes open the supply tent to get at the canoodling counselors, we are treated to a meeting scene around a campfire. Regis, the authoritarian and hence mustachioed camp director, tells everyone they will have to work hard to achieve the coveted wilderness counselor certificate. In fact, that is the only piece of information that Regis imparts.

At 50 minutes into the film, there is a story told around a campfire. It is the story of the maniac who killed campers at a nearby campground, related by counselor Bobby, who heard the story from counselor Ron, who heard the story from the local sheriff.

Meanwhile, Regis's second-in-command Marcie waits for Regis to return to his tent. Of course, she wears the traditional counselor garb of a camouflage bikini, and she practices with her whip to a recording of Flight of the Valkyries.

After Regis returns to his tent, Bobby tells a second story to the other counselors around the campfire, this one about a guy named Bernie in 1975 whose family was forcefully evicted from their cabin because their mountain was being turned into a recreation area.

The story ends with Bernie "chopping up campers left and right." It is a mark of the filmmakers' skill, and Bobby's acting ability, that we do not need to see a flashback to understand the horror of the situation. Bobby's words and delivery of them are horrific enough.

"A young deputy finds him by the river, next to a pile of arms and legs," says Bobby, "stacked up like firewood."

 The counselors pair off and leave the campfire. Ron and a counselor named Debbie decide--irrationally, one might say--to investigate the old cabin nearby where Bernie used to live. They too abandon the roaring campfire to walk out into the darkness.

Back in his tent, Regis discovers Marcie's body and then finds himself on the business end of Bernie/PJ's axe.

The killer's next victims are a couple of campers intending to take a shower together. Bernie/PJ uses the familiar ploy of turning the heat up on the shower water from outside the shower tent, burning the girl's face so the killer can use his axe.

Ron and Debbie, meanwhile, make it to Bernie's cabin and start a fire--urgently, due to an amusing slapstick scene in which both of them tripped into a stream outside. The result is a scene of Ron and Debbie in their underwear in front of the fire, ostensibly to dry themselves and their clothes.

The film takes this opportunity to introduce a new character: a rumpled, bewigged detective named Taylor investigating the murders at the campground. Taylor is played by Neil Kinsella, a veteran first assistant director who worked on Pee Wee's Playhouse, in a charmingly quirky manner owing more than a little to Peter Falk's Columbo. As the coroner's men take the bodies away, Taylor recognizes the heart attack victim as Bernie's father Pop, and he realizes what it means. He hops into his car to drive to the counselor camp.

Taylor will survive for a few more minutes, at least.

In perhaps the most shocking scene of the film, bespectacled counselor Bobby admits to counselor Victoria that he is not as successful with girls as he pretends. Then, of course, they begin making out.

They decide to return to his tent, so he kicks one clump of snowy dirt onto their small fire and it is safely extinguished.

Unfortunately for Bobby and Victoria, Bernie/PJ is following them. He disposes of them quickly.

The film moves onto to perhaps its cleverest set piece. Taylor, his car stuck in the snow, stumbles through the forest toward the camp. He comes across yet another campfire, around which counselors are singing "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain." But all is not as it seems. The singing is coming from a radio, and the counselors are all dead, rigged to a wooden beam to sway back and forth, appearing from a distance to be singing. The movement is provided by Victoria, who is hanging from a tree, with her struggles as she dies making the beam move back and forth.

The purpose of this elaborate ruse is unclear, but the effect is perfectly clear: Taylor is freaked out, but not enough so that he does not rescue Victoria. As he does so, a javelin impales him, courtesy of Bernie/PJ hiding high up in the tree.

Victoria expires at the end of the rope.

Ron and Debbie, the only survivors, get dressed and leave the cabin, only to be attacked by Bernie/PJ, who axes Ron in the back. Debbie becomes the storied final girl, destined to run through the woods until she finds an abandoned police car.

In the end, Debbie uses the shotgun in the police car to dispatch Bernie/PJ.

In the disturbing coda set in the morning, the police discuss finding the bodies at the camp.

An ambulance brings the survivors--Taylor and Debbie--down from the mountain. Debbie screams, clearly driven insane by her ordeal. We see she is wearing a strait-jacket, probably supplied by the ambulance company.

In the final twist, a police SUV drives down the road. The driver tips his hat to a policewoman, but we see from the driver's shades and hat that he is, somehow, Bernie/PJ. He simply drives away.

Director Michael O'Rourke is to be commended for everything he included in Moonstalker. On the surface, the film might seem to be a standard wilderness slasher movie, but it is commendable in that it incorporates multiple movies within that framework. First, there is a teenage party slasher movie. Next, there is a family-vs-family slasher movie. Then there is a summer-camp-in-winter slasher movie. Finally, a police procedural is brought in to finish the film. All of these components work well, and they keep the audience on its collective toes, wondering what kind of movie will be coming up next.

In addition to his skill at incorporating varied components into a single narrative, Mr. O'Rourke is proficient at constructing an existential horror movie. Unlike many, dare I say most, wilderness slashers of the 1980s, Moonstalker contains no direct violence (excepting Regis' arms being chopped off) and little indirect violence. The existential dread we in the audience feel is not due to a fear of dismemberment so much as a fear of the fear of potential dismemberment. Mr. O'Rourke is to be congratulated for pulling off such a difficult feat.

Mr. O'Rourke should also be congratulated for setting his film in the mountains near Carson City, Nevada during the snowy winter. While Moonstalker does not have the trudging-through-deep-snow authenticity of The Capture of Bigfoot, its setting is a refreshing departure for the wilderness slasher movie, most of which are set in the summertime.

In the same year as Moonstalker was released, 1989, Michael O'Rourke also wrote the film Hellgate, another horror movie in which many occurrences occur, and which stars an unforgettable Ron Pallilo. (I have not yet covered Hellgate on Senseless Cinema, but its time might be coming soon...)