Monday, May 7, 2018

"If You Need Anything, I Live at the Store" - Memorial Valley Massacre (1989)

It goes without saying that any film with the word "massacre" in its title is an instant classic (see Drive In Massacre, 1976) and Memorial Valley Massacre (1989) is no exception to that venerable rule. In fact, Memorial Valley Massacre features massacres of both reptiles and humans, so it is a doubly frightening example of the massacre subgenre. With its themes of city folks unable to survive in the wilderness, and its guest appearance by the great Cameron Mitchell, Robert C. Hughes's film is a fine late-1980s thriller.

Some of your universe's critics appear to disagree. For example, Rod Lott at Flick Attack writes, "The script is poor, the direction a notch below that and the acting even farther south." IMDB reviewer ResidentHazards writes, "The base concept behind the story isn't terrible, but since everything else was just done way wrong, there is no redeeming value." IMDB reviewer BaronBl00d writes, "But why make a film like this? It really has no message, little real humor, no great cinematography, and a real crummy story."

Read on for an unbiased look at the charms of Memorial Day Massacre...

The film begins with a long caravan of Winnebago campers rolling along a dirt road to the pleasant strains of Jed Feuer’s synthesizer music. The shots of campers driving into the wilderness are intercut with stock footage of forest animals, some of which appears to be from the early 1950s.

One of the men coming from the campers is David Sangster, the son of the developer of the Memoral Valley Campground.

David Sangster’s father is a well-dressed Cameron Mitchell, who is furious that the campground is not ready to open to the public, despite the long line of people waiting to get in.

“Did you hear about the water supply?” asks one of Mr. Mitchell’s underlings. The water has been tainted by the corpse of a dead dog. When the workers pull the dog’s carcass out of a well, one of them leans over the well and says, “I think I’m gonna barf.” (Fortunately for all concerned, he does not further contaminate the groundwater.)

“Animals fall down wells all the time,” says a construction water, an indisputably true statement and of course a common aphorism.

“Screw the dog,” says Mr. Mitchell. “Is the water fit to drink?”

Mr. Mitchell and his campground manager George decide to open the campground despite the problems. As soon as Mr. Mitchell greets his son near the gate and gives the young man an undefined job at the campground, Mr. Mitchell drives away.

The first order of business at the newly opened facility is for George to calm the crowd and inform them there will be no running water. Despite the dozens of vehicles driving to the campground, the crowd of customers numbers well under two dozen. Nevertheless, George uses his bullhorn to address the crowd.

(It must be noted that George is played by John Kerry, future U.S. senator, presidential candidate, and Secretary of State, though he looks somewhat older in this film than he did while serving as a Cabinet member. In any case, his oratory skills serve Mr. Kerry well as he informs the campers they will need to use biodegradable toilet paper.)

Almost immediately, the audience is shown that the mishaps affecting the campground are being perpetrated by a wild man with crooked teeth who wears animal skins and hides—poorly—in the storage shed. The wild man appears to be afraid of, or possibly enraged by, dogs.

The filmmakers introduce the campers in humorous vignettes, demonstrating with great efficiency that all the campers are incompetent city folk incapable of pitching tents, chopping firewood, or driving without crashing into trees. The campers include a small motorcycle gang, the members of which bemoan the changing mores of the late 1980s. “Most of those mothers have traded their Harleys and leathers in for Beemers and pin-stripe suits. Face it: We’re an anachronism.”

Like all campground workers, David Sangster quickly meets an attractive young woman who is putting up her tent (not, incidentally, a euphemism). He tells her smoothly, “Uh, if you need anything, anything, I live at the store.”

“I thought they all lived in the city,” the woman says dismissively. “Dorks in the wilderness.”

Next, David and George have to deal with a pile of snakes that have climbed atop a picnic table piled with food.

“God damn,” says David. “Those are poisonous.”

George, a man of action, begins banging the snakes with his shovel (again, not a euphemism). The younger David, a man of thought, finds a fire extinguisher and blasts the snakes, then he entreats George to continue with the shovel.

Of course, the true horror is that the campers’ food is ruined many times over by the snakes, the shovel, and the fire extinguisher. The campers threaten to leave. “You know, I’ve heard stories about this valley, but I never paid any attention. But now...” With the chilling ambiguity of that statement, he and his wife walk away.

The filmmakers next demonstrate their grasp of late 1980s sexual politics among twenty-somethings as two men and a woman set up a camper tent. One of the men asks the woman, “Which one of us do you like better, me or Rick?”

“I don’t know,” she says, giggling. “You’re both sort of cute in a weird kind of way.”

“Yeah, but which one of us do you really like?” asks Rick.

“You mean which one of you would to sleep with?” she asks.

“Right,” says the first man. “That’s exactly what we mean.”

She responds, “Maybe you’ll just have to wait until tonight to find out.”

(It is almost as if the scene is occurring in reality and the filmmakers are documenting it with a hidden camera. In this one scene, Memorial Valley Massacre shows a grasp of youth culture far ahead of the films of John Hughes or, for that matter, Larry Clark.)

As the film progresses, it becomes clear that the wild man, who lives in a cave, respects nature while the campers—all of whom are unpleasant, venal, and grotesque—are threats to the natural balance. Among the large cast of campers are an army officer who holds the rank of lieutenant brigadier general (a rank with which those from my universe are entirely unfamiliar), his wife and dog, and a family with an off-roading teenager who breaks the law by riding his vehicle through the campground. Fortunately for nature, the caveman is capable of running as fast as the off-road vehicle, so the teenager is the first victim of the massacre. (In reality, the vehicle is the first victim, while the teenager is the second victim, his neck snapped during an incongruously sudden lightning storm.)

During the attack on the teenager, we also learn the caveman has an aversion to clocks when he finds a stolen pocket watch on the teenager’s person.

During a campground party, a superstitious local confronts one of the bikers, telling the biker that not being afraid of things that go bump in the night is a bad habit. “Good,” says the biker. “I like bad habits.”

The elderly local, Deke, retorts, “It must be a shame to your mother for you to have grown up to be so silly.” Later, he tells David poetically, “Memorial Valley is like God’s private woodland, like it just fell from the skies, with only the stars to feast their eye on it.” Deke also summarizes George’s backstory, which involves a detailed story about George’s kidnapped child for whom ransom was supposed to be dropped off in Memorial Valley. The perpetrator, Prescott, escaped with the child into the woods, leaving no trace. George has been searching for his lost son for 20 years. (The mysterious relationship between this cryptic story and the massacre-bound caveman is impossible to guess at this point, but the filmmakers will explain it in due time.)

After a tent-based romantic interlude between David and the attractive single camper, there follows a less romantic tent-based discussion among the three twenty-somethings—a discussion that ends, as many do, with screams and a bear attack—or rather, a bear sticking its head into the camper tent, then sauntering away.

When the teenager’s body is discovered—and blamed on the bear—George and David argue about calling both the police and, as is only appropriate in such a situation, Cameron Mitchell. George does not want the authorities to be called so he rips the phone off the wall. “Great, that’s just great,” says David. “Now how are we supposed to call the police?”

“I’ve still got the short wave,” says George, perhaps calling into question his action of destroying the phone.

Of course, the only logical response to a bear attack is to form a rifle-armed posse of interested—and, as we have seen, incompetent—campers. The twenty-somethings are interested. “They’re passing out guns and ammo at the camp store like it was candy. This bear hunt’s gonna be bitchin’,” says one of the men.

During the bear hunt, two of the bikers get lost in the woods and stumble upon both the caveman’s cave and the bloody knife he used to murder the teenager. They also find a skeleton and a newspaper article about a kidnapped boy. Of course, the bikers are more interested in joking around than investigating. One of them picks up the skull. “If the guys in the bowling league could see this...”

Shockingly, the caveman appears from nowhere, buries an axe in one of the bikers, chases the other biker out of the cave and into a spiked pit, and retrieves his apparently beloved skull.

The truth comes out when David, George, and others discover the cave and the murdered biker. George reveals that the caveman, shockingly, might be his son!

The possibility is reinforced by the filmmakers when the caveman breaks into the camp store in order to look at an old family photo of George, his wife, and their son.

Angered by the photo, the caveman knocks over the traditional pyramid of baked bean cans.

The caveman then jumps, in an extraordinary stunt, out through the general store’s window and onto a Jeep, which he cleverly disabled by pulling out the appropriate ignition wires as well as the wires powering the CB unit.

After the hunting party finds the spiked pit, and the associated dead bodies, everyone remaining at the campground decides to barricade themselves into the ranger’s cabin and call the police.

The General, however, decides to take his chances in his RV. The General says, evocatively, “You go back and you tell that incompetent maaaaaan...I can take care of myself.” He adds, “See, I don’t mind a little one on one.”

This decision leads almost immediately to the caveman—acting as a proverbial one-man A-Team—rigging a death trap involving a gas line, which causes the General’s RV to explode.

(The audience is immediately intrigued by the concept of a murderous caveman capable of sophisticated traps who previously attacked an off-road vehicle with a stick.)

There are a few more murders, as well as a perhaps ill-advised rape scene which I will not describe, before the survivors manage to gather at the ranger’s cabin, though in fact they spend the night camping in the ranger’s front yard.

“This is no mindless violence,” says Deke. “This is vengeance.”

Ranger George, now quite drunk, explains. “I’m one of the best trackers in this parts, in the God damn country, and I never found him. It took 17 long years to get this park built so I could be here all the time to keep looking. Keep tracking.”

In the climactic battle, one of the women looks at her watch. “It’s five a.m.,” she says. “It’s Memorial Day!”

Suddenly, a bulldozer drives into the ranger’s yard, severely damaging the picket fence.

In the end, the heroic and drunk George follows the caveman into the forest, expertly debilitating his many traps. Finally, George corners the caveman in a ditch. “Who are you?” asks George. “Are you Steven Webster? Do you recognize me?”

The caveman pulls out the stolen pocket watch, proving his identity. George walks forward, probably for an embrace, but he sets off another trap.

I cannot in good conscience spoil the deeply emotional ending of Memorial Valley Massacre. Suffice it to say the ending is bittersweet, though it unfortunately does not include the return of Cameron Mitchell’s character, which would have elevated the film to the status of an all-time classic.

I must say it: Memorial Day Massacre presents a bigger massacre than Drive In Massacre (i.e., there are more murders, even if you do not include murders of snakes), and hence is arguably an even better film. One of the most chilling features of both films is the open-ended ending: The audience cannot feel safe even for a second knowing those responsible for the massacres in both films are somewhere out there, waiting to continue their murder sprees.

In addition to being a family drama, Memorial Valley Massacre raises and answers the age-old question: Is technology good or bad? Technology is bad. It invades nature, which is fundamentally good, in the forms of off-road vehicles, bulldozers, motorbikes, recreational vehicles, and CB radios. Only when the same technology is turned on ignorant humans through the use of clever death traps can we, as the audience, learn the valuable lesson that we should not go camping.

In the end, I cannot improve upon the wisdom and practicality of the great Cameron Mitchell, who imparts the following philosophy in this film: "Screw the dog. Is the water fit to drink?"