Monday, April 17, 2017

"It's a Real, Real Emergency" - Blood Rage (1987)

Slasher films, of course, are a respected staple of world cinema, and no country, perhaps with the exception of Canada, has produced as many high-quality slasher films as the United States. We have covered a few of the finer examples of the form here (A Day of Judgment, The Demon, Haunts), and now it is time to turn our attention to the Florida-set slasher Blood Rage (1987), a recently rediscovered masterwork of the genre.

Despite the recent praise of many of your universe’s more perceptive critics, many reviewers somehow fail to see the charm and sophistication of Blood Rage. For example, Dennis Schwartz writes, “Despite an intriguing premise, the pic falters. It seems played only for laughs. It might work best if viewed as an oddity.” On Rotten Tomatoes, Edward Boxler writes, “Blood Rage is a laughably silly slasher film where the whole premise is void of logic, the acting is horrendous, and the low budget feel poses too many awkward situations…It’s just bad.” On IMDB, reviewer tomgillespie2002 writes that the film is “terribly acted, badly written and features a plodding narrative….the same stretched-out chase scenes and clunky dialogue seen in a thousand films of its ilk.”

I will not contemplate how these misguided reviewers reached such blatantly incorrect conclusions. Rather, I will present the brilliance of Blood Rage, also known as Nightmare at Shadow Woods, to you so you may reach the correct conclusion, that Blood Rage is a masterful 1980s slasher film.

The film opens in Jacksonville, Florida in 1974, though mysteriously everyone is dressed in bright 1980s clothing. The House That Cried Murder is playing at the drive-in theater. After a short but surprising cameo by Ted Raimi as a fedora-wearing entrepreneur selling condoms out of his vest, we follow some of the patrons of the drive-in. Nearly all of them are engaged in amorous activities rather than watching the film. One of these amorous couples is Louise Lasser and a man in a garish Hawaiian shirt. Ms. Lasser is worried that making out with the man will wake up her twin boys, who are asleep in the back of the station wagon (curiously, with a rifle lying on top of their blanket, though the rifle is never mentioned).


Ms. Lasser is correct to worry, as the 10-year-old boys, Terry and Todd, sneak out of the car to cause mischief, which here includes spying on couples having sex, as well as the bloody hatchet murder of one of said couples. The murderer is Terry, but he frames his brother Todd, who appears to be mute and semi-catatonic. 

We flash to 10 years later, watching Ms. Lasser drive to a guarded gate and show her pass. As the guard lets her drive through the gate, she tells him "Happy Thanksgiving" and, as most of us would in such a position, she shakes his hand.

Ms. Lasser's character drives to a large white building, clearly a mental institution. She meets Todd's psychiatrist, Dr. Berman, played by Marianne Kanter, the film's producer. Dr. Berman explains to Ms. Lasser that Todd now has memories of the fatal night--that Todd's twin brother Terry was the real hatchet murderer.

Ms. Lasser refuses to believe that Terry, whom she considers to be the good son, committed the murder. This frustrates Todd to the extent that he squeezes a small box his mother has given him until a brown mush oozes out. Perhaps a symbol of Todd's fluid state of sanity, the brown mush is explained much later in the film as a piece of pie--his mother brings Todd pie every Thanksgiving.

His frustration increasing, Todd throws the mashed pie against the wall.

Back at the Jacksonville apartment complex where Ms. Lasser lives, we see Terry playing football with a group of college students back home for Thanksgiving break. They are interrupted by two elderly joggers, though we find out quickly that one of the elderly joggers is actually a college student whose elderly appearance is due to her ill-advised 80s hairstyle.

At dinner with Terry and his girlfriend, Ms. Lasser and her boyfriend Brad--who works as the apartment complex manager--announce that they are going to marry. Sinister piano music indicates that this announcement has an effect on Terry, though outwardly he is blandly happy.

Ms. Lasser takes a phone call in the kitchen. She calls Terry to her side and reveals to him that Todd can't be found at his "school." "School" here means mental institution. He has "run away." "Run away" here means he has escaped from the mental institution.

(The brilliant costumes deserve to be noted here. Note Todd's collar and tie, as well as Ms. Lasser's inappropriately low cut blouse and childlike hair ribbons. The filmmakers are subtly suggesting that the audience should ask who are the actual crazy people here?)

Of course, Ms. Lasser and her son decide not to say anything to the guests, but Todd immediately says, "It looks like you're gonna get a chance to meet the rest of the family. My psychotic brother just escaped." Then everyone continues eating as if everything were normal.

After dinner, Ms. Lasser speaks with her fiancé. She says she will feel better if she just straightens the place up a little. Thus begins her brilliant portrait of a character slowly losing her mind, a portrait that will be poignant, amusing, and finally devastating over the course of the film.

Outside, Dr. Berman rings the doorbell. When Terry opens the door, Dr. Berman's overly anxious assistant Jackie pulls a gun on him, mistaking Terry for Todd. Louise Lasser and her fiancé come to help. When she sees the gun, Ms. Lasser exclaims suddenly and shockingly loudly, "What's that gun?"

Dr. Berman explains that the pistol is merely a tranquilizer gun so they can sedate Todd when they find him.

Brad offers his services to Dr. Berman, volunteering to go to his office, though it is unclear why that will help in the search for Todd. "I won't be long," he tells Ms. Lasser. "Okay," she says, "just don't be long."

"I won't be long," he says again.

Brad reaches his office and sits at his desk, listening to a preacher on the radio and drinking an Old Style beer. Behind his desk is a sliding glass door leading outside, providing a nice view of the Florida vegetation. Terry appears outside with a large machete. He taps on the glass.

Brad swivels around in his chair and opens the sliding door for Terry. "Look what the cat brought in," Brad says. He appears not to find the machete unusual. He also appears not to realize the phrase is "Look what the cat dragged in."

Terry slices off Brad's hand with the machete, then for good measure slashes the man's head open.

Dr. Berman and her assistant Jackie split up to search the grounds of the apartment complex. Each of them is ineffectual in his or her own way. Dr. Berman makes her way awkwardly through the forest, looking for a nature path. Jackie sits on a resident's lounge chair and smokes a joint, only to be discovered by Terry. Ill-advisedly, Jackie mentions that Dr. Berman knows that Todd never killed anybody. Immediately, Terry plunges the machete straight through Jackie's stomach.

Back at Louise Lasser's apartment, we witness the first of many scenes depicting how she deals with the stress of her homicidally insane son returning home, as she sits on the floor in front of the refrigerator binging on leftovers.

Outside, Dr. Berman runs afoul of Terry while searching through the forest. The result, unfortunately for Dr. Berman, is bodily bisection by machete.

As a result of the murder of Dr. Berman, we are treated to one of Blood Rage's most famous lines of dialogue. Terry examines his blood-stained clothing in a bathroom, tastes the blood, and makes a profound observation.

"It's not cranberry sauce." Perhaps this line is the essence of Blood Rage's brilliance. It is a line that will be repeated more than once before the horrifying night is over.

While Terry is murdering various people, his brother Todd is wandering around the apartment complex looking in windows. By coincidence, he comes across Karen, Terry's girlfriend, behind the apartment building. Karen believes Todd is Terry. She embarrasses herself by telling him she wants him to make love to her, but then she realizes he is Todd. She makes a quick escape and meets up with some of her college friends, who decide to hunt for Todd with a baseball bat.

Soon, the college kids find Terry and tell him his brother is prowling around. Terry decides to search for Todd on his own while the others decide to have an impromptu party at their apartment.

Louise Lasser continues to deal with her stress by tidying up her apartment.

When Terry surprises her while she vacuums, she asks him to go find his brother, and adds, "Terry, please put on a sweater. It's cold outside. The blue one."

Outside in the woods, Todd stumbles upon Dr. Berman's body in two pieces on the ground. Touchingly, Todd lifts her lower half and reassembles the body of his deceased therapist.

At the college kids' party, the two boys play video games and taunt each other. "I'm going to whip you like a stepchild."

Terry, with nothing to do, wanders around the apartment complex killing the neighbors, including the mother of a baby in a bassinet and her goofy date.

Todd also wanders around the complex. He makes his way to his family's apartment and enters what must be his old bedroom. Filled with nostalgia, he looks at his old possessions. In a fascinating twist, one of the toys in his room is a Yoda head, despite the fact that Todd was locked away in a mental institution since 1974.

After Todd leaves, Louise Lasser has another opportunity to shine as a dramatic actress. Sitting on the sofa, she speaks with a phone operator, trying to reach her fiancé Brad, whom we know has been slaughtered by Terry and his machete. Ms. Lasser's demeanor grows more and more frantic as she explains for several minutes that she needs to contact Brad because this is a real emergency.

Ms. Lasser plays this long scene very effectively, like a dramatic Bob Newhart acting only one side of a phone call. "The problem is that my son just escaped from his school," she explains to the unseen operator. "Well, actually, he ran away....Actually, it's a mental institution. He ran away from a mental institution."

The camera slowly zooms in toward Ms. Lasser as she tries to connect with the operator.

Then we watch Terry slash two college kids having sex on a diving board.

The camera then returns to Ms. Lasser as she grows still more desperate. The camera zooms out, away from her, emphasizing her growing desperation and loneliness.

After considerably more wandering around, Karen finally discovers that Terry is the true murderer when he swings his machete at her. She runs through the apartment complex, stumbling across the murdered corpses in fine slasher fashion. All the while, Terry makes quips and teases Karen amicably, wielding the machete covered with blood that is definitely not cranberry sauce.

The only character in the film showing any sense of responsibility, Karen finds the baby, whose mother is among the victims, and runs around the complex.

In a clever twist, Louise Lasser finds Terry's bloody shirt in the kitchen trash bin, but she assumes it is Todd's shirt even though she saw Terry wearing the shirt earlier.

Ms. Lasser runs through the apartment complex, independently of Karen, and finds her boyfriend Brad in an unfortunate state in his office.

The heart-pounding climax occurs when Karen brings the baby to the apartment complex's indoor swimming pool. She hides the exceptionally quiet baby in a cabinet under a sink in the rest room. Then she discovers more murder victims and attempts to hide from Terry while he relieves himself at the urinal (though that act takes less than two seconds).

Finally, Todd comes to the rescue, pointing the pistol he found with Dr. Berman's corpse at Terry and defending Karen.

Unfortunately, the pistol is empty. Terry simply puts the machete in Todd's hand in order to frame him the same way he did ten years earlier. But Todd won't be passive anymore. He attacks Todd and the fight moves into the swimming pool.

Eventually, Louise Lasser appears and uses another gun, taken from Brad's office, to shoot Terry repeatedly.

In another twist, as Louise Lasser comforts Todd, it becomes apparent that she believes he is Terry. When he tells her he is Todd, her mind snaps.

Louise Lasser screams "I'm Todd" over and over, then kills herself with the gun. The End.

Of all the strong points of Blood Rage, its emphasis on realism is probably the strongest. The film really feels like an accurate depiction of what would happen in a Florida apartment complex if a deranged killer were to arrive. For example, the film includes many scenes of people walking around, because real people in such a situation probably would wander around the complex a lot. The killer Terry is also a realistic murderer. Instead of a mask-wearing boogeyman, Terry favors polo shirts and jeans, and he says “Hi” when people notice he is nearby, as a real murderer would (I assume).

Another strength is Louise Lasser’s towering performance. Unlike stalking victims in lesser movies, Ms. Lasser does not take the news that her murderous son has run away (escaped) from his school (mental institution) in stride. Instead, she had a gradual nervous breakdown as she tries to cope with the distressing news. At the end of the film, she is driven insane by the realization that her good son was the murderer and her bad son is still alive. Ms. Lasser is the ideal casting choice for the loving but fragile mother.

The recent rediscovery of Blood Rage is a boon to slasher film fans around the world. A Thanksgiving-set horror film, it is truly a cornucopia of gore, suspense, and motherly tribulations.