Monday, August 6, 2018

"Bears Give Me Six Heart Attacks" - Blood Stalkers (1976)

We return now to the proto-slasher days with Blood Stalkers, also known as Bloodstalkers, a film with a copyright date of 1975 but a release date on IMDB of 1976. Probably one of the finest of all the proto-slashers, Blood Stalkers mixes old-fashioned drama with newfangled gore, and by the end of the film it teaches us all what a "bloodstalker" is.

Some of your universe's reviewers are ignorant of the charms of bloodstalkers as well as Blood Stalkers. On IMDB, reviewer reverendtom writes, “This is a pretty obscure, dumb horror movie set in the 1970s Everglades. It is really stupid and lame for the first half...” Reviewer b_kite writes, “Sadly, this thing is a hour and a half of nothing but boring plodding crap.” Similarly, lthseldy1 writes, “Lame. thats what this movie is.”

I must say I do not recognize the movie these three are reviewing. Let us proceed in our discussion of the spectacular early slasher film Blood Stalkers...

The film begins with dialogue as characters drive through yellow shots of what appears to be a post-apocalyptic landscape, but turns out to be Florida. The woman in the car says through voiceover, “Look at this God-forsaken place. There’s nothing out here, not a blessed thing. How in the hell did you talk me into spending our whole vacation like this? My God, I’ve lost my mind.”

The man says, “You know, the Everglades is one of the few places left in this lousy world where you can still see some nature. I mean, it’s full of animals and birds and things.”

“Yeah,” replies the woman, “and probably more things than animals. Animals I can take. It’s those creepy-crawly things I can’t handle.”

“We’re in for a whole bunch of surprises,” he says.

“I can hardly wait,” she replies.

They continue arguing for several minutes until the man, Mike, tells the woman, Kim, to “Quit your bitchin’” which of course leads to her silence.

The station wagon stops at the traditional gas station to ask directions to Mike’s family cabin, which he hasn’t seen since he was twelve. The gas station attendant gives Mike the traditional warning to turn around and go back where he came from. “You’re on the right road to Hell,” says the attendant.

Confusingly for an uninitiated audience, we also see a white-haired man, Dan, and a red-headed woman, Jeri, waking up in the back of the car complaining about one-night stands.

The elderly attendant pokes his head in the car window to say, “Bloodstalkers. That’s bloodstalker country now. Nobody been out that way for five, maybe ten years.”

Of course, nobody asks who or what a bloodstalker is.

Moments later, still at the gas station, the car is surrounded by three men with hunting knives and rifles. Mike drives away but the hunters, who turn out to be alligator hunters, strike up a conversation with the gas station attendant. The biggest of the hunters, who is wearing some sort of paper hat, says in a British accent, “They’re going to bloodstalker country, the bloody bastards, however. Bastards!”

The group has difficulty finding the cabin, in a sequence that plays out in real time, but they eventually find the overgrown road leading to it. “You’d need a bloody Jeep to get down this road,” says Kim. The two couples have to carry their luggage, as well as their little dog, down the road to the cabin.

Kim finds it suspicious that there is dust in the cabin, though it has been boarded up for eight years. Mike finds it suspicious that the car has been spattered with mud, and that he hears what must be a cheetah screeching in the Florida swamp.

Later, Mike and Dan sit on the front steps of the cabin, where Mike explains survival in the Florida wilderness. “It’s when those frogs and crickets stop, you notice. A bear, or something. That’s when you worry.”

Dan replies, “That’s when I worry. Bears give me six heart attacks.”

Mike and his wife Kim go skinny dipping, but instead of following them, the filmmakers focus on their friends Dan and Jeri, who are regretful that their careers as middle-aged singer/actor and middle-aged stripper are driving them apart for some unexplained reason.

Meanwhile, Mike and Kim are briefly shown skinny dipping (incorrectly for most of the sequence, in their clothes), while a dark figure watches, and another dark figure rises from the water.

On the way from the water to the cabin, Mike gets spooked by the quietness and pulls a handgun from somewhere. “I thought you’d never touch one of those things again,” Kim says. “You’re scaring the hell out of me.”

The cheetah roars again and they hightail it back to the cabin. Mike stops the hysterical Kim at the front porch. Referring to their friends, Mike says for unexplained reasons, “Now those people in there, we can’t go barging in there like a bunch of idiots.”

Unpleasantly, they walk into the cabin to find Dan shirtless and Jeri in a negligee making love against the indoor picnic table.

Later, the discussion turns to Mike’s career as a Marine, which he gave up after the Vietnam War. Dan tells Jeri privately, “The best I can figure out is, it really got bad there for a while, and he went in and he blew up a house.” Mike also spent time in a mental institution.

Then Dan gives some kind of comedic performance as he climbs a stairway, speaking in dramatic terms of mysteries and monsters. Suddenly, Jeri is attacked by a black furred arm reaching through the window, accompanied by the sound of a cheetah screeching!

Fortunately, a small scythe is hanging on the wall beside the window, so Mike is able to hack at the arm and rescue Jeri. “Get the gun!” he screams to his wife. He scrambles to get the gun and fires through the cabin wall, apparently injuring the creature, who then starts banging on the ceiling. In a suspenseful sequence full of zooms and closeups, the four wait in the cabin, until they see blood pooling under the front door (nowhere near where the creature was, it must be said).

Unfortunately, Mike has shot their little dog. (It is unclear if it was the dog pounding on the roof of the cabin earlier.)

Because the car tires are slashed and Jeri is close to catatonic a la Barbara in Night of the Living Dead (1968), the only chance is for Mike to run into town to get help. Mike runs serpentine-fashion along the roads until he reaches town, but he is surprised that the locals, who told him earlier they wouldn’t help him, won’t help him.

Oddly, though it is quite dark and crickets are chirping, a car Mike flags down has its headlights turned off.

The car drives off without helping.

Mike runs into the three burley alligator hunters from the gas station who are brawling with each other. When they discover Mike is watching them, they chase him into the woods for about ten minutes, after which Mike escapes.

As is traditional in backwoods horror movies, Mike next stumbles upon an African American church choir practicing in the middle of the night. As the choir sings, Mike explains his story to the pastor, but like the others the pastor refuses to help. This leads to a somewhat peculiar staring contest between the sweaty Mike and the even sweatier pastor, the result of which is the continued refusal of the man of God to help.

Back at the cabin, we get our first glimpse of a bloodstalker’s face, as it listens in on the mundane conversation of Kim, Dan, and Jeri complaining about the Everglades.

The creature attacks while Mike runs in slow motion through the swamp, apparently racing back to the cabin as if he knows his friends are in danger. The thrilling sequence is scored to the choir singing the same hymn they finished singing only minutes earlier.

The creature attacks, accompanied by much screaming.

Suddenly it is morning. Mike wakes up in the grass. He flags down a car a la Sally in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) to take him back to the cabin. Fortunately for Mike, the car is driven by an off-duty deputy who for no apparent reason imitates John Wayne. When they reach the road leading to the cabin, Mike’s station wagon is gone and the cabin is littered with the bodies of Mike’s friends.

The carnage includes the film’s most famous image, of Kim viciously murdered by an axe.

We’re the murders committed by a wild creature, or by the alligator hunters dressing up as bigfoot to smuggle alligator skin?

It’s the alligator hunters (spoiler).

Mike shoots the murderer dressed as bigfoot and the other two kill the deputy. Fortunately, Mike can put his Marine training to good use, as he uses the scythe that killed Dan to murder the second bloodstalker. He puts the scythe right through the man’s jaunty ascot.

The remaining bloodstalker, the Brit named Pip with the paper hat, is murdered to light jazz music, receiving the axe to his abdomen in super-slow motion. He falls to the ground, also in super-slow motion.

Finally, the gas station attendant, the true mastermind of the alligator skin smuggling operation, meets his own well-deserved demise, and Mike stumbles, dazed, back into town. Finally, the townspeople offer to help him (though he is now carrying a shotgun and looks far more dangerous and homocidal than he did the previous night).

Mike shuffles away as the end credits roll.

Top billing in Blood Stalkers is given to Ken Miller, who plays the somewhat goofy performer Dan. Mr. Miller is a veteran of movies and TV, appearing in titles as diverse as I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) and Touch of Evil (1958). Mr. Miller excels in his role as Dan in the highly dramatic scenes where he questions his relationship with a stripper, in the highly comedic scenes where he teases Jeri about being afraid in the cabin, and in the highly romantic scenes where he appears shirtless for much of the film.

Another high point of the film is the clever role of the gas station attendant, who in later slasher films would serve the role of gatekeeper, warning teenagers not to proceed farther down the road at the risk of their lives. In Blood Stalkers, the attendant fills this role, but he also turns out to be one of the slashers. This dual role also existed to some extent in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), which is perhaps one of the models of this effective film.

The film keeps the audience guessing for most of its running time. We see a bigfoot terrorizing our heroes and we must wonder why the film is called Blood Stalkers rather than Blood Stalker. In the end, the bloodstalkers are revealed to be three or four men, revealing the hidden meaning in the title. We are kept in high suspense, as the reveal does not occur until near the end of the film, a mark of great skill for the director Robert W. Morgan, who also plays the ascotted alligator hunter named Jarvis, and who wrote William Grefe's Mako: The Jaws of Death (1976). (Ironically for a man who wrote and directed a film about a false bigfoot, Mr. Morgan is a sasquatch hunter in real life.)

In the end, Blood Stalkers is a classic proto-slasher for the ages, both timeless and of its time. Who can forget Ken Miller's immortal line "Bears give me six heart attacks"? Me too, Mr. Miller. Me too.