Monday, November 27, 2017

"Is He Giving Me the Fingeroo?" - Horror House on Highway Five (1985)

A piece of hard-won advice: You can always tell that a horror movie is going to be good if the first word in its title is “horror” (see also Horror High, 1974). Following this wisdom, our next film is Richard Casey's 1985 proto-torture-porn film Horror House on Highway Five, a film that carefully and idiosyncratically walks the fine line between gritty suspense and slapstick shenanigans.

As usual, many of your universe's revered critics fail to appreciate this film's qualities. On IMDB, reviewer CMRKeyboadist [sic] writes, "The incoherent storyline is only one of the many things that make this one of the most bizarre movies out there....Of course, the acting is bad and the filming is even worse." Of course? Reviewer Backlash007 writes, "Horror House on Highway 5 could really be the worst movie ever....I really have no idea what effect the filmmaker was trying to capture....I don't know. The effect obviously didn't work. And neither does the entire movie. Avoid like your life depended on it." Reviewer hbendillo writes simply, "Acting - BAD Story Line - BAD Dialoge - BAD Cinematography - BAD Effects - BAD."

Suffice it to say these reviews miss the entire point of this woefully underrated gem, so it is up to me yet again to defend the film from its misinformed detractors.

The film opens in a cluttered room with a condescending man quizzing another man about the meaning of tarot cards. They disagree about the meaning of the skeletal card labeled La Mort. The condescending older man says it means love, while the younger man says it means death.

"No, it's not love," says the younger man. "It's a skeleton."

"Look," replies the older man. "He's smiling. Love. Love!"

After this highly symbolic opening, the film presents a gritty suspense sequence. A woman is cleaning up her home. The film lingers on the details: a glass coffee table, a soundtrack album from Disney's Alice in Wonderland, the Richard Nixon mask and opera gloves her husband wears to scare her.

She recognizes him instantly, not as Nixon but as her husband. "Did you know it was me?" he asks.

Sarcastically, she replies, "No, I thought it was Billy Carter," a reference that elderly people might understand but which is not worth explaining here.

Unbeknownst to the woman, her husband is quickly killed by a stalker, who puts on the Nixon mask and proceeds to stalk the woman, after somehow stuffing her husband's body underneath the kitchen sink without her noticing...until it is too late.

The filmmakers tighten the tension by having the woman hide from her stalker. The tension is then broken suddenly when the woman steps carefully into the living room and, for no apparent reason, falls straight into the glass coffee table. Though she cuts her wrist, she is fine. She is even able to use a shard of glass as a weapon, though in the end she is no match for the Nixon-faced stalker, who strangles her, tragically before she can cut him.

After this bravura suspense sequence, the film moves on to its main--and, cleverly, much more comedic--plot. As is the case with many terrifying thrillers, that main plot involves a college assignment.

The professor assigned three students--Louise Kingsley, Mike Simpson, and Sally Smith (that last name apparently scripted and not, as it appears, improvised on the spot)--to investigate the development of the German V-2 rocket in World War II by a scientist named Frederick Bartholomew.

In fact, the professor knows exactly where the students can complete their project. He points to a small map pinned to a bulletin board.

"Right here, off old highway 5, is the community of Littleton, which strangely was the place where Bartholomew completed his post-World War II experiments."

It should be noted that the map shows Interstate 495 but no highway 5, and that Littleton (pronounced as if spelled "Little Town" but clearly labeled "Littleton" on the map) is on the outskirts of Lowell, Massachusetts.

Sally Smith arrives late, bumps into her colleague Mike's chair, and promises not to be late. The professor assigns Sally to interview Bartholomew's last known associates, and he also assigns Mike and Louise to build a reproduction of a V-2 rocket in Littleton.

We follow Sally through the palm tree-lined streets of what we believe must be Massachusetts until she reaches a hacienda-style apartment building, where she contacts Frederick Bartholomew's associates--who happen to be the men arguing about tarot cards in the film's enigmatic opening scene.

The men introduce themselves as Dr. Marbuse and his assistant Gary, associates of Bartholomew and experts on the V-2 rocket. "Nobody on this planet knows what I know," says Marbuse. "This is your lucky day." Then he yells at Gary for burning food on the stove, which cuts the interview short. Sally leaves, but Marbuse sends Gary after her to kidnap her.

In an expertly timed comedic sequence, Gary stumbles around the kitchen. "But where's the sack? Where's the chloroform? Oh, here's the sack. But where's the chloroform?"

Gary manages to kidnap a young woman, but, hilariously, it is not Sally. Gary is forced to carry the kidnapped and chloroformed woman back down the stairs and out on the street to a bus stop. The bus stop is already occupied by a man reading a newspaper, so Gary pretends he is having a discussion with the unconscious woman so nobody will be the wiser. This slapstick sequence is only partly impaired because a car has pulled to a stop between the camera and the bus stop, blocking about 60% of our view of the scene.

At night, Sally returns to Marbuse's apartment. He makes her "one of my special beverages," which entails putting two capsules into a mug full of water. Marbuse tells Gary to give Sally the drink. "Here. Don't screw up."

"How could I screw up?" asks Gary.

"You could screw up. You could drink it yourself. Don't drink it."

Alone in the living room, Sally is mildly alarmed to see the wall lined with framed, pornographic photos of women half-clothed in Nazi regalia.

When the two men return to the room, Sally tells Gary he should stand up to Marbuse, who treats him like an inferior domestic servant. "Don't let him push you around," she advises.

"There's only one thing to do in a situation like this," says Gary, agreeing. "I'll kill him. I'll find that hammer and I'll put it right through his skull."

Sally believes this response is an overreaction, so she tells Gary he should be more assertive. She drinks the drink and falls asleep.

In a clever bit of surrealism, we learn that the film is not taking place in Massachusetts at all, as indicated on the professor's map, but Los Angeles, as Marbuse drives with the unconscious Sally through Hollywood and we see signs for maps to the stars' homes reflected in his window. He also drives through downtown Los Angeles to Bartholomew's abandoned laboratory apartment in Littleton.

The film then takes what may be described as a nasty turn, becoming a proto-torture porn film. Marbuse and Gary begin to torture Sally, with Gary pressing a hot clothes iron against her chest while Marbuse chants something mystical-sounding in clumsy phonetic German. Gary, however, has feelings for Sally, and he shows this by pressing the iron against Marbuse's hand.

The scene becomes a standoff between the caped Marbuse, wielding an iron as a weapon, and the uncaped Gary, holding some kind of flimsy lint roller (or possibly a narrow table lamp) as a weapon.

The standoff fizzles out when Marbuse is unable to strike Gary, though Marbuse later strikes himself in the head with a hammer by mistake as the film returns to its slapstick personality.

The film cuts to our other protagonists, Louise and Mike, as they drive nearby, oblivious to the fact that their classmate Sally is being held in the laboratory/apartment building.

As Louise and Mike drive along, Mike comments that there are not many houses nearby. Then he says, "Look, there's a house over there in the woods."

We see the house where Marbuse and Gary are holding Sally, and the music turns sinister.

"There's another one," Mike points out. Indeed, we see another house, the one from the opening stalking sequence with the man in the Richard Nixon mask.

The filmmakers here add another layer of suspense. Is the laboratory/apartment the titular horror house on highway five? Or is it the second house, the scene of the previous crime? Or is it another house entirely? And are Louise and Mike driving on highway five? They appear to be driving on a narrow road rather than a highway that would warrant a number, but perhaps the "five" in "highway five" refers to a county route, not necessarily an interstate. Indeed, the filmmakers have given us much to ponder.

Louise and Mike, of course, are driving to Littleton to reconstruct and test a V-2 rocket.

When Louise hits a bump, Mike panics because the equipment in the back of their van shifts. "My God, the chemicals," he says. "We could have been exploded."

Meanwhile, in the laboratory/apartment, Marbuse reveals that Bartholomew is nearby, and is in fact not dead. "You can't speak of someone like that being dead," says Marbuse.

By nightfall, Mike and Louise have made no progress on their rocket, but they do find the bloody body of a dead cat in their van, where they appear to have slept. We learn that Bartholomew, in addition to being a rocket scientist, used to cut up animals. "And people too," adds Mike.

Sensibly, the two decide to return to town but their engine fails to start. In this scene, we also see that their van is decorated with, of all things, a pair of fuzzy dice, a toilet brush, and Picasso's sketch of Don Quixote.

Mike discovers an oil leak, so the two are trapped in the van for the night.

The film returns to the mysterious killer in the Richard Nixon mask, who is wandering the roads at night and is almost hit by a drunk driver and his girlfriend. The car screeches to a halt and the killer stumbles toward it.

"Is he giving me the fingeroo?" asks the drunk driver cryptically. "I think he is."

The killer is not, in reality, giving anyone the fingeroo.

The Nixon-masked killer assaults the drunk man, leaving him in a pile by the side of his car, which allows us to see the man's spectacular yellow jacket with black masking tape stripes.

The two drive away, and the killer walks in the opposite direction. However, the drunk is not yet finished, as he makes a U-turn and attempts to murder the masked man.

Somewhat confusingly, the scene ends with the drunk driver dead in the car, his girlfriend running into the night, and the killer stumbling around on the road.

Somewhere nearby, back at the van, Mike and Louise, acting rationally yet again, decide to make a bomb out of the rocket chemicals in the van in order to protect them from any stalkers that might be wandering in the night.

Back at the (possible) horror house on (perhaps) highway 5, Marbuse sinks into paranoid delusions that parasites are infesting his brain. Also, Sally attempts to convince Gary to leave the house with her, but he would prefer to clean up the place.

While Gary and Sally sit on the floor, the drunk driver's girlfriend simply walks into the room, and is immediately captured by Marbuse, who appears out of nowhere, hugs her, and drags her into a hallway.

She escapes and barricades herself into a downstairs room, only to realize she has locked herself inside with the Nixon-masked killer, who, masked, kills her.

Coincidentally, Mike, who wandered away from Louise and the van looking for a telephone, also finds the downstairs room at the horror house. Mike walks through the dark corridors of the house avoiding the noises of unseen things being thrown at him. It is truly to the filmmakers' credit that it is impossible for the audience to tell if this sequence is meant to be tautly suspenseful or uproariously funny.

Mike is eventually done in due to bloody wounds whose causes we never learn, and due to falling face-first onto a rake.

The Nixon-masked maniac next makes his way to the van, where Louise discovers him and runs off into the night to escape him. She runs rather quickly to Mabruse's horror house, where she saunters into the room where Sally is chained to a heavy scale.

Louise helps free Sally, but somehow--it is not quite clear how--Gary knocks Sally out and Louise, like the others, winds up in the downstairs corridor, menaced by the killer.

Upstairs, Marbuse writes a confession to Gary, a confession that he narrates while writing. "Dear Gary, before I go, I must tell you a few things. We are brothers. Bartholomew is our father. He is around here, someplace. The last I saw him he was dressed up like a former president. I know he was very proud of Richard Nixon."

When we see the note, it is somewhat illegible, probably due to the brain damage Marbuse has sustained via slapstick shenanigans.

In the thrilling finale, Louise is chased by Marbuse, who wields a corkscrew-style hand drill.

After Louise turns the proverbial tables on Marbuse with a tire iron, she stalks the Nixon-masked killer through the dark woods, revealed to be Frederick Bartholomew, and also revealed to be some sort of zombie, with her model rocket. Will she prevail? And what about Sally, last seen in Gary's clutches back at the horror house?

In the ending, which owes an artistic debt to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), there will be only one survivor, and the evil will continue to exist. And, shocker of shockers, there will be an appearance by a Southern California freeway that might in fact be the titular Interstate 5.

Among the many charms of Horror House on Highway Five is the interesting but somewhat rough cinematography of Bill Pope, who would later work frequently with Sam Raimi and Edgar Wright. Another charm is the apparently effortless and unpredictable ability of writer/director Richard Casey to move from torture to slapstick comedy and back again within the space of a scene.

Perhaps the best aspect of Horror House on Highway Five is the filmmakers' apparent desire to delight the audience through simple deception. Though not obsessed with onscreen magic tricks like Demon Wind (1990), Richard Casey's film seems to enjoy the occasional lower-level practical joke. For example, the antagonist's name is Marbuse, which is close to the name of Dr. Mabuse from books by Norbert Jacques and films by Fritz Lang, but is subtly different. The map of Massachusetts is another little joke on the audience, and only the quickest viewer, or one equipped with a pause button, is likely to note the absence of Highway Five anywhere on the map. The low-level jokes even extend to the dialogue, such as the dimwitted motorist asking if the killer is giving him the fingeroo -- an expression that should have caught on with the younger crowd, but, alas, did not.

It must be noted that Richard Casey, after a hiatus of 29 years, directed something of an indirect sequel to this film called Horror House on Highway 6. Though only one character from the first film is present in the second, the sequel explores some similar thematic avenues as the original, and attempts to replicate some of the original's tonal shifts as well. Is the film as good as Horror House on Highway Five? I will weight in on this much-disputed question in one week's time. See you then!