Monday, September 10, 2018

"Getting Ready for a Date with Tom Selleck" - The Dark Power (1985)

The wave of supernatural horror films that followed the success of The Evil Dead (1981), colloquially known as "cabin in the woods" films, produced a high proportion of excellent cinematic masterworks. One of these is The Dark Power (1985), a North Carolina-shot movie about demonic Toltecs starring Western whip specialist Lash LaRue.

Some critics in your universe, as usual, fail to appreciate the film's charms. Reviewer coventry writes, "'The Dark Power' is an indescribably cheesy and inept piece of 80's horror crap." Reviewer samax_89 writes, "A total and utter travesty of a movie. 'Dark Power' is the kind of film even Troma would be embarrassed to release.The script,direction,acting and action sequence's are so dire as to be almost painful to watch." Reviewer jimevarts summarizes his opinion: "I put this movie somewhere above Suburban Sasquatch and below Birdemic in cinematic quality, plot, and writing."

I feel compelled to dispel these ridiculous opinions. Read on for an appreciation of The Dark Power (1985)...

An opening crawl tells us about the Toltec, who lived in America before the Aztecs and who buried themselves alive “and, they fed on the living to sustain their evil!!!!” (Four exclamation points, it must be admitted, indicates a lot of evil.)

Somewhere in the southern United States sits a community of houses, and inside one house an elderly Native American man lies in bed, surrounded, like all Native Americans, by policemen and videographers. He dies with the word “Toltec” on his lips.

We find out through voiceover that the man, John Four Eagles Cody, died before videotaping his last will and testament, which was going to be televised on the local news for some reason. We also find out that Mr. Cody believed that he had to guard the four corners of the world.

Later, a camera flies through the woods a la The Evil Dead (1982) to a synthesizer score while a young boy plays with a homemade bow and arrow. In a clever twist, the flying camera is actually the point of view of a dog running through the woods. These intercut shots last about six minutes until the boy discovers a group of dogs sitting casually in the forest.

Though they appear friendly, the dogs chase the boy along a path, finally catching him and attacking him. He is saved, however, by the legendary Lash LaRue wielding his legendary whip for approximately six more minutes. Mr. LaRue, playing a forest ranger, chases off the dogs.

(It should be noted the dogs have nothing to do with The Dark Power, and the boy is never shown again.)

Elsewhere, the son of John Four Eagles Cody, David Cody, pilots a boat upriver to his father’s cabin, where an attorney and a workman who appears to idolize Oliver Hardy are getting ready to go through the deceased man’s belongings.

Mr. LaRue also arrives at the cabin, where he identifies an artifact. “The skull is a symbol of the dark power,” Mr. LaRue says.

“Why is an eagle on top of the skull?” asks Oliver Hardy.

“To control the dark power,” says Mr. LaRue.

After Mr. LaRue leaves the cabin, Oliver Hardy casually uses the n-word.

When David Cody arrives, he speaks in a heavy Southern drawl. “This land is mine now,” he says. “No more magic. No more hocus pocus.” (Thus, in a clever though perhaps racist twist, the Native American is more interested in money than mysticism, and the forest ranger wants to preserve the native traditions.)

Later, Lash LaRue flirts in a restaurant with a reporter, who explains that everyone knows how he uses his whip to corral wild animals (not a euphemism). The conversation then turns to the Toltecs, and also to Four Eagles Cody. In a skillful bit of filmmaking, the movie cuts to Mr. LaRue’s home, where he is being interviewed by the reporter in front of a news camera. He explains that Four Eagles Cody got his name from the eagles, which were attendants of the gods as a daytime power, and from the four corners of the earth. “The number four is significant in American Indian culture,” he explains, “much like the seven is significant in Christian faith.” He also explains that many years ago, a Toltec tribe migrated from Mexico to the American south. Moreover, the area known as Totem Hill (which is a flat field near a river, not a hill) was a “power spot” worshipped by Toltec sorcerers who also worshipped the dark powers.

Mr. LaRue also explains that his whip was a gift from Four Eagles Cody, and that its end is tipped with materials from the four corners of the earth.

The second act begins when the reporter tells a handful of college girls that Four Eagles Cody’s house is available to rent, which they do immediately, despite jokes about the Toltec sorcerers. There is a great deal of highly educational discussion about the lottery to get on-campus housing.

The girls have moved in, and one has even turned a room into a health club.

“You’d think she was getting ready for a date with Tom Selleck,” says one girl cryptically.

“Or Arnold Schwarzenegger,” adds their friend, equally cryptically.

In a socially conscious subplot, two of the girls, Susan and Beth, get an African American girl, Tammy, to move into the house with them, over the objections of their hysterically racist roommate Lynn, who says, “I prefer not to associate with black people. You understand, don’t you? That’s my right, you know.” (Later, she casually uses the n-word in case her bigotry has not sufficiently sunk in to the audience’s consciousness.)

Meanwhile, the reporter and Mr. LaRue investigate more about the Cody house at the Hall of Records. They find out that four Toltec sorcerers buried themselves alive in the land, and that Four Eagles Cody wanted to dig up the land and have everything uncovered buried at sea, though this never occurred.

Back at the house, everything appears to be going as well as can be expected. We are introduced to Craig, the brother of the racist tenant, who ogles Susan as she is working out in the kitchen. (Later, he walks into the bathroom while one girl is taking a bath and the other is taking a shower. Fortunately, Susan flushes his head in the toilet.)

Craig moves into the house. Notably, everything he says is accompanied by a wacky xylophone sound. He proves to be as racist as his sister.

Elsewhere, the reporter and the employee from the Hall of Records have a deep conversation about Ranger Girard (Mr. LaRue). “You don’t think that Mr. Girard believes Cody’s legends, do you?” the reporter asks.

“No, but I do realize that there is some truth in all legends. I think Girard knows there’s a thin line between what’s fact and fiction.”

“And the fact is, according to fiction anyway, that tonight’s the night Four Eagles dreaded most.” In fact, today is the start of the “evil days.”

Coincidentally, a party is going on at Cody’s old house, attended by all the tenants and some college boys. They are joined by the handyman who was looking after the cabin, in addition to the handyman’s little nephew. After much conversation about fixing the commode, the nine-year-old nephew steals his uncle’s keys and steals his pickup truck, driving off into the distance. (It should be noted that this boy, like the different boy inconvenienced by dogs at the beginning of the film, is never shown again.)

At the forty-eight-minute mark, the film becomes a horror movie, as the handyman is grabbed by one of the Toltec sorcerers climbing out of the earth.

“Hey,” one of the partying boys says, “we have company.”

They look out the window to see the zombified sorcerer. “Hey, this guy’s a Thriller!”

Of course, they open the door for the Toltec.

Two of the Toltecs kill one of the college boys, who barricade themselves in the house, to no effect because they have forgotten to lock any of the doors. All four of the warriors enter the house. Soon, most of the boys are killed and the Toltecs begin acting, for no apparent reason, like the Three Stooges.

In a grotesque scene, the last of the boys has his hand pulled off and his face, apparently rendered rubbery by the Toltec’s touch, ripped apart.

The physical comedy continues as one of the Toltecs gets an arrow in his forehead, and later a tomahawk in his stomach. Of course, these injuries provide only laughs, as the Toltec is a zombie. Meanwhile, another of the Toltecs breaks into the house and starts drinking various liquids, including dishwashing soap and beer.

Soon Tammy encounters one of the Toltecs, but she fends him off with a knife, saying, “I’m just about getting ready to go on the warpath and when I’m through with you, you’re gonna be running home on a Trail of Tears.”

Tammy and Beth are the final girls alive. They fight off the Toltec zombies, but they are soon cornered in the living room. Much screaming ensues.

Fortunately, Mr. LaRue arrives just in time to save two of the eight people at the house. His whip saves the day and chases the Toltecs away.

In the end, the zombies are dispatched permanently through the use of eagle-topped knives from Cody’s storeroom. They melt down in a similar fashion to the demons in The Evil Dead.

The finale involves the last surviving Toltec, now armed with a whip, and Lash LaRue. “You girls take a hike,” Mr. LaRue says. “This one’s mine.”

A three-minute whip-fight ensues, and Mr. LaRue emerges the victor, finally decapitating the zombie with his whip.

In the coda, Mr. LaRue narrates a message to Four Eagles Cody. “The afternoon and evening of my life are still to be lived,” he says, though tragically Mr. LaRue himself would only live 11 more years before his death in 1996 at age 78.

The Dark Power is one of those classic films that begins as a taut drama and ends as a slapstick comedy. At about the halfway point, the Toltec zombies are revealed to be comedic, though still dangerous, figures, and the strength of the film lies in its ability to take the audience along for the entire ride. It is truly one of those films where you will laugh and scream (though you will probably not cry, as the film does not offer any pathos).

Behind the heavy beginning and the light-hearted ending, however, the film does have a serious issue to explore, and that issue is the difference between masculinity and femininity. In contrast to many horror and exploitation movies in the 1970s and 1980s, The Dark Power presents its women (except for the racist roommate) as the heroes and its men (except of course for Lash LaRue) as incompetent morons. The male college students are killed almost immediately, while the women survive by screaming loud and stalling the Toltecs until the magic daggers can be used. In short, The Dark Power gives the audience a lot to think about while it is laughing and screaming. And, truly, what more could be asked for from a cabin in the woods film?