Monday, September 17, 2018

"Spin Out and Boil Your Hair!" - New Year's Evil (1980)

It is time to return to the slasher subgenre with New Year's Evil (1980), the classic holiday slasher from Emmet Alston, the director who would go on to create perhaps the definitive alien bigfoot film, Demonwarp (1988).

Unfortunately, all critics are not enamored with New Year's Evil. On IMDB, reviewer preppy-3 writes, "This is a rock-bottom, stupid, boring, horrendous 'Halloween' clone." (I must take issue with the word "clone," as there are basically zero similarities between New Year's Evil and Halloween.) Reviewer skutter-2 writes, "Everything about the movie is cheap, scuzzy and ugly." (Here I must take issue with the word "everything.") Reviewer dzizwheel writes, "Muddled plot, loose ends....Too many plot machinations to allow the viewer to suspend disbelief unless he's on some mind altering substance while viewing." (Here I must take issue with every word in the sentence, except perhaps "allow." Perhaps.)

Let us move on to our description of this classic slasher film. Please read on if you appreciate cleverness and creativity in your golden age slasher movies...

The film begins, horrifyingly, with a slow zoom into a Holiday Inn at night. Diane aka Blaze, played by Ms. Pinky Tuscadero, is in makeup, getting ready to host a New Year’s Eve countdown show on TV. As she frets about the show, her assistant is abruptly murdered in the same hotel by a gloved killer with a knife.

Outside in the streets of Los Angeles, New Year’s revelry akin to a post-apocalyptic wasteland reigns. A carload of New Wave partiers spits on middle-aged people in a Cadillac convertible while a woman in a blue van pulls her top up. The celebration is accompanied by a catchy glam rock tune called “New Year’s Evil”:

“Running in the night to meet the moon all dressed in white, you appeal.
Outside in the streets, you hear the cheers for you, my dear, from all the people.
Tell me well at least, something something, New Year’s Evil!”

The New Wave twenty-somethings arrive at the Holiday Inn, to the consternation of the stuffy doorman, who asks for the group’s tickets.

Upstairs, Ms. Tuscadero greets her son Derek, played by 1980s mainstay Grant Cramer. His character announces he has a part in a new TV series called “Spaceship America.” “It’s really a good part,” he says, but his mother doesn’t seem to care.

The show begins and Ms. Tuscadero makes her entrance on TV. “It’s time to spin out and boil your hair, you know,” she says, and then she explains the film’s title. “Now, this is your last chance to be bad before you make those New Year’s resolutions. That’s why we call our celebration New Year’s Evil!”

The filmmakers cleverly introduce the time-based structure of the film in an efficient manner. Ms. Tuscadero looks at a television and starts talking to it through her microphone. First, the TV shows stock footage of Times Square in New York City, where the turn of the new year is 58 minutes away. Next, the TV shows stock footage of Chicago, and we are reminded that Chicago time is one hour after New York. Finally, the TV shows stock footage of a torchlit ski run in Aspen, Colorado, and a narrator says that midnight in Aspen is one hour later. “So...that’s what you can expect before...we celebrate our finale here on the west coast,” Ms. Tuscadero explains.

Next, she walks to a phone bank, where operators are taking calls nominating different songs to be the New Wave hit of the year. She picks up a phone to hear a man with a voice distortion machine. “Happy New Year to you, Blaze,” he says, speaking from a phone booth.

“Ooh, some kind of voice you got there,” Ms. Tuscadero says. “Sound like the phantom.”

“You could call me that,” he replies.

Ms. Tuscadero says (rather oddly, given that she just named the caller), “So, you got a name, Phantom?”

“Call me...Eeeevil!”

“Evil? You bad, honey?”

“No! Just...Eeeevil!”

Of course, she asks for his vote for a song. He has no song, but he says he is going to commit murder at midnight. “I’m going to kill someone you know, someone close to you!”

This entire conversation is broadcast on TV coast-to-coast, as there appears to be no producer to cut off the death threat.

The show cuts to the band Shadow performing their song “New Year’s Evil.”

The crowd at the hotel, which appears to consist mostly of 30- and 40-year-old partiers, slam-dances enthusiastically to the song.

We next watch the man who calls himself Eeeevil! leave his phone booth and break into the Crawford Sanitarium with a bag and a tape recorder. Inside the sanitarium, all the mental patients are dancing to the Ms. Tuscadero’s TV show while their nurses are blatantly laughing at them.

After breaking in, Eeeevil! takes advantage of the fact that he is an inordinately handsome man to seduce one of the nurses. They drink champagne out of paper pill cups.

Meanwhile, while Shadow’s New Wave performance degenerates into at least twenty minutes of slow jazz, the police talk to Ms. Tuscadero, though they blame her New Wave music for driving people to make death threats. “You people amaze me,” says the detective. “Here you create a problem and then you complain about it.” Then he adds, “If the guy calls again, try to keep him on the phone longer than normal. We’ll try to record the call and then try to trace it.” (I must admit I thought things worked differently in your universe, and that tracing a recording of a cell was not possible, but clearly I was wrong.)

Elsewhere in the hotel, Ms. Tuscadero’s son, Grant Cramer, takes three Midols and quickly loses his sanity, pulling red panty hose over his face.

The band Shadow has apparently played for nearly an hour, as the video feed from Times Square approaches midnight.

Back in the sanitarium, the handsome Eeeevil! takes his first victim, the nurse he has seduced, by stabbing her with a switchblade during the Times Square narrator’s countdown.

When Eeeevil! calls Ms. Tuscadero again, she tries to stretch out the phone call. He tells her, “I just made my first kill, right on schedule. Midnight, Eastern...Standard...Time.” The he plays an audio recording of the murder, which features the countdown and a few groans.

At this point the filmmakers allow the audience to question the structure of the film, as the sanitarium residents were celebrating New Year’s during the Times Square countdown, indicating the sanitarium is located in the Eastern time zone—how will the killer get from the East Coast to Chicago in less than an hour for his next kill? The filmmakers reinforce this ambiguity when the detective explains to Ms. Tusdadero, “Now when this guys says murder at midnight, he means midnight in each of the time zones all across the country.”

The producer says, “Wait a minute, you’re trying to tell us that he’s gonna do this three more times?”

“Until we catch him,” says the detective. “You gotta keep the show on the road.”

Elsewhere, Eeeevil! has disguised himself with a fake mustache for no reason. He stalks his next female victim in a bar (where she mentions the defunct discount chain Zody’s), telling her he’s going to a party at Erik Estrada’s house. In this scene, the filmmakers make it clear that the time is 9:30 and Eeeevil! is in Los Angeles, forcing the audience to question the fabric of reality itself (i.e., either why the sanitarium residents were celebrating midnight at 9:00, or how Eeeevil! crossed the country in thirty minutes).

The filmmakers next add some satirical social commentary. When Ms. Tuscadero says the recorded voice sounds “so inhuman...evil,” the detective replies, “That does not set him apart in this town. There’s enough evil floating around here to...fill Death Valley.”

Eeeevil! kills his second victim (who summarizes her philosophy thusly: “You know, Transcendental Meditation, Transactional Analysis, zen, all that don’t mean doodly-dee-squat. When a girl doesn’t have a date on New Year’s Eve, she’s in Shit City.”) in his Mercedes at a liquor store by suffocating her in a plastic bag of marijuana.

Even worse, Eeeevil! lures the victim’s slightly less ditzy friend to a dumpster where he is hiding and kills her by dragging her head-first into the dumpster. (Oddly, the bodies are discovered elsewhere, in a playground beside an apartment building.)

After the bodies are discovered, the detective says matter-of-factly, “If he stays on schedule, he should be stalking his 11:00 victim by now.”

The filmmakers next entertain the audience with a car chase, as Eeeevil!, dressed as a priest, runs into a motorcycle and the gang chases him through the streets. In order to hide, he enters the Van Nuys Drive-In Theater, which is showing the trailer for Blood Feast (1963). The biker gang follows. Eeeevil! runs away on foot, though he stops to kill one of the bikers, and hijacks another car with a teenage girl inside. When she escapes into a park, he takes the time to chase her. However, he is himself chased away when the police arrive, so his 11:00 murder is thwarted—a fact which is not noticed by the police or Ms. Tuscadero.

The final act of the film begins as Eeeevil! infiltrates the Holiday Inn where Ms. Tuscadero is hosting her show by dressing as a police officer (after knocking out a real police officer with a brick).

The tension is raised further when a man wearing a Stan Laurel mask enters Ms. Tuscadero’s dressing room.

When the man pulls his mask off, we recognize him as Eeeevil! but Ms. Tuscadero knows him as her husband who says he had driven in from Palm Springs. Eeeevil! is Ms. Tuscadero’s husband!

Ms. Tuscadero and her police escort attempt to return to the TV studio using a hotel elevator. She asks him if he’s married and if he has any kids. “Two sets of twins,” he says.

Not remotely surprised or interested, Ms. Tuscadero makes the somewhat bewildering comment, “What’s the matter, no TV?”

Suddenly the elevator makes an emergency stop, engineered by Eeeevil!, who has somehow secreted a trunk full of electronic equipment into the building.

Eeeevil! (now dressed, it must be said, in a costume similar to one that would be worn by his namesake Evel Knievel) kidnaps Ms. Tuscadero by dragging her police escort out of the elevator. “Why?” she asks him.

“Because I’m fed up. You’re just like every other lady in my life. Derek told me how you behave around other men. Derek also told me about the way you try to turn on your own son, and that is not nice. Ladies are not very nice people.”

Threatening her with his switchblade, he says, “Midnight starts the first day of my new life. And you know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna go to the Rose Bowl game with my boy. We’ll let you sleep in.”

His inspired, Snidely Whiplash-type plan is to chain Ms. Tuscadero to the underside of the elevator. As the elevator rises, she hangs by her wrists, screaming. He toys with her by controlling the elevator from a control panel (we learn that controlling an elevator requires only twisting a screwdriver in an electrical circuit).

Chased by police, Eeeevil! runs up the stairs from the basement to the roof of the hotel, and then he puts his Stan Laurel mask on again. Then he recites a small part of Hamlet’s soliloquy and jumps off the building, killing himself. Coincidentally, Grant Cramer is in the parking lot. He removes the mask and snuggles with his deceased father.

We are not shown how Ms. Tuscadero is rescued, but she is loaded into an ambulance. In the thrilling conclusion, we see that the ambulance is, perhaps implausibly, being driven by Mr. Cramer wearing the Stan Laurel mask.

Little can be said about New Year's Evil that has not already been said. However, I will attempt to say a few things. First, this film is nearly unique at keeping its audience off balance. The initial premise of the film appears to be that the killer plans to kill someone in each of the four continental U.S. time zones as midnight strikes (i.e., the first murder will occur in the Eastern time zone, the second in the Central time zone, the third in the Mountain time zone, and the fourth in the Pacific time zone). The brilliance of introducing this plan lies in challenging the audience to figure out the mystery of how this is possible. Will the killer move from time zone to time zone in less than an hour, a seemingly impossible feat? Will he be aided by magic or scientific teleportation? Will he have minions in each time zone? The possibilities are nearly endless (or, in any case, there at least three possibilities). The filmmakers' solution is like a classic magic trick involving misdirection, in that the audience eventually realizes that all the murders are taking place in the Pacific time zone. While some might be disappointed in this revelation, or even call it a "cop out," I stand by my belief that it is the height of cinematic cleverness.

Second, New Year's Evil is the rare slasher film that introduces the slasher up front as an ordinary, even attractive, person with no mask. A mask is introduced near the end of the film, but then dismissed quickly when the killer's relationship to Pinky Tuscadero is revealed. This approach to mystery (I call it the "no mask/mask/no mask strategy") is unique in the slasher genre, and quite a breath of fresh air compared to films whose entire mystery hinges on the unmasking of the killer at the end. Such cheap suspense tricks are well below the heights to which New Year's Evil aspires.

In the end, there is very little the cinema needs more than a slasher film from the director of Demonwarp, and New Year's Evil fits the bill perfectly.