Monday, February 4, 2019

“She’s Got This Thing for Nightgowns” - Epitaph (1987)

Let us now turn to 1987's Epitaph, aka Mommy's Epitaph, a domestic thriller about a highly disfunctional family. Directed by Joseph Merhi, the Las Vegas pizza magnate whose Hollowgate (1988) is also an avowed classic of the horror genre, Epitaph works as both a slasher film and a domestic drama.

Shockingly, Epitaph is not well regarded by some of your universe's critics. For example, reviewer ttschopp writes, "First of all the film was obviously very very cheap. The camera work is the worst I've ever seen. The story is so stupid and implausible, that you got the feeling they wrote the script it in one hour. The actors are all so bad, it's beyond belief." Reviewer symbioticpsychotic writes, "the story really doesn't know what to do." And reviewer adrian_tripod writes, "If you hate movies where people doggedly refuse to act in their own best interests then this one will drive you up the wall."

Needless to say, these critical reviews have no basis in fact. I aim to set the record straight, so let us dive into Joseph Merhi's underrated gem Epitaph...
The film begins, as do many classics, with a family moving to a new house. In this instance, there is the sarcastic teenage daughter Amy, her mustachioed father Forrest (who resembles Martin Mull), her bescarfed mother Martha (who resembles Stockard Channing), and her optimistic grandmother (who resembles every elderly woman).

“Amy, you know this house was built in 1907?” her father says.

“I know, I know, it used to be a church, you told me a million times,” says Amy, causing her mother to rebuke her. Immediately thereafter, Amy finds a stray dog in the front yard and the family decides to keep him, naming him Bear for no discernible reason, as the dog is small, white, and fluffy. Then the grandmother asks if she can plant turnips in the backyard.

The family reveals they have their share of problems. The mother drinks wine seductively, about which the father complains. She retorts, “I’m going to go make a sandwich. I’m hungry.”

Forrest replies, “Why won’t you make love to me?” as if love is equivalent to a sandwich (and he is probably not the first person to suggest this). “I need you to love me, Martha. I need it now, not tomorrow or next week.”

Meanwhile, Amy’s grandmother brings Amy some fresh cookies. She asks if she made them in the house’s filthy kitchen. “I saw a rat in there.”

“Yeah, I know,” says the grandmother, shrugging.

The next day, Amy’s mother attempts to seduce a house painter working inside. When the painter tells her he has a girlfriend, Martha asks, “Is she as beautiful as”

“She’s all right,” replies the painter, then he goes on to call her a horny old bag. Of course, she comes back and murders him with a knife, slapping his face afterward for good measure.

At night, Forrest digs a grave for the painter’s corpse, using a pick axe rather than a shovel, contributing to the difficulty factor. Martha says the painter tried to rape her, but he knows that she is at fault. Apparently, such murders have happened before, contributing to the family’s need to move from house to house.

It seems murder has an upside, as Forrest’s disposal of the body turns Martha on and the two make love.

The next day, Forrest drops Amy off at a park, apparently mistaking it for a school. He gives her some money to buy lunch at the cafeteria. After school, Amy walks through the parking lot of the park, running into a classmate named Wayne, who is attempting to bribe their history teacher with a birthday cake. Wayne is a goofy jokester; when Amy tells him her name, he responds, “I had an uncle named Amy.”

In an awkwardly dramatic scene, Forrest visits a female psychiatrist to get help for his wife’s delusions and rages. “She thinks men want to rape her,” he explains.

“Has she ever been raped?” the doctor asks.

“No,” he says. He adds, “She’s got this thing for nightgowns. She loves nightgowns. And she wears them around strangers.”

She agrees to help, though it appears she is interested in psychoanalyzing Forrest, who might be the cause of Martha’s murder problem.

Amy, whose taste in pajamas suggest she would make a good match for Don’t Panic’s protagonist, practices how to tell Wayne she can’t go with him to the movies.

Suddenly, Amy is attacked by the zombie painter! Her father doesn’t believe her, but there is a patch of blood on her shoulder.

Forrest returns to the yard with a lantern and his pick axe. Suddenly, he is murdered when the pick axe plunges into his back, and the apparently reanimated painter returns to the house to get his bloody revenge.

The painter finds Martha upstairs, but shockingly she expected him to arrive, knowing that she did not kill him sufficiently with the knife. She blasts him with a shotgun and he falls out the window, making him the victim of three different kinds of murder: stabbing, shooting, and defenestration.

The next day, the three generations of women decide, reasonably, to bury Forrest in the backyard because everything will be too difficult to explain. Amy asks, “Do I have to go to school today?”

They hold a funeral in the bedroom with an unreasonable number of candles. Amy screams “I hate you!” at her mother.

The next morning at the breakfast table, everyone is cordial and friendly. Martha allows Amy to stay home from school. Then Amy and her grandmother walk through the woods with Bear the dog. “Amy, it’s time for you to go back to school,” Grandma says.

“What are we going to do, Grandma?” Amy asks.

“You’re going to go back to school and I’m going to do the dishes,” Grandma replies.

They hug, and Amy cries because she knows her family is in a precarious position, what with her mother constantly murdering people and everything.

Later that same day, Amy does go to school, which consists of walking along a fence separating a baseball field with a tennis court while smiling broadly. Then her goofy friend Wayne teaches her how to play tennis (wackily complimenting one of her serves by saying, “That was a home run, Amy!”)

In an absurd moment of comedy, Martha and Grandma are visited by their ostensible neighbor Shirley, actually the psychiatrist Forrest hired , a divorcee who serves as the neighborhood welcoming committee. The newcomer throws three chickens on the barbecue grill, asking, “How do you like your steaks?” Then the three women drink “to the salad.”

As the night wears on, Martha invites Shirley to spend the night in the spare bedroom, despite the fact that Shirley ostensibly lives next door. After Shirley leaves, Martha reveals she is jealous that Shirley and Amy were talking. While Martha and Amy take a long shopping expedition the next day, they discuss Amy, and Martha insists that Amy is not allowed to date. Then they run into Shirley’s friend Warren, a fashionable redhead who addresses Shirley as “doctor,” almost blowing her cover. (Note: Warren is played by Richard Munchkin, a producer on this film and director of several action films in the 1990s.)

The psychodrama continues as Amy hides her relationship with Wayne and Shirley hides her true identity from Martha. “You know what I fantasize doing?” Martha asks Shirley. “Working as a Vegas showgirl.”

“What do you think that would be like?” Shirley asks.

Martha laughs and pauses for a long, long time. “Great,” she finally says.

Later, Martha helps Amy get ready for school by doing her hair and dressing her in a white shirt with puffy sleeves.

Amy, however, does not fall for her mother’s plan to dress her so she will never ever date. At school, Shirley parks her car in a random driveway and leaves her car there to confront Amy, trying to get to the bottom of the mystery with Martha. Amy cries. Shirley admits she is a psychiatrist, but Amy fails to admit her father is dead and her mother is a mass murderer.

At night, Shirley enters the dark house, looking for Martha. Naturally, Martha hits her over the head with a crowbar, strips her to her underwear, and ties her up in the basement.

“Look what I the trash,” Martha says, holding up a rat.

Martha cruelly rubs the rat all over Shirley’s skin, then drops her down Shirley’s pants.

“Martha, where’s Virginia, Martha?” Shirley asks, referring to Grandma. “She can make a salad.”

Then Martha tortures both Shirley and, more importantly, the rat by trapping the rat in a bucket, strapping the bucket against Shirley’s stomach, and then using a blowtorch to force the rat to gnaw its way through Shirley’s body.

At the end of the Milliganesque torture scene, we see the rat emerging from Shirley’s back.

Events build to a climax when Amy tries to leave the house with her giant suitcase, as Wayne has promised to help her get an apartment. However, Martha discovers her plan and locks her in the empty spare bedroom whose walls run with blood from Martha’s previous murders.

Back at the kitchen table, Martha explains herself to her mother-in-law. “I knew what I wanted when I was sixteen. I wanted to dance. I wanted to be a BALLERINA! And I could have been if your stupid son hadn’t gotten me pregnant. You can’t dance when you’re PREGNANT!”

In a striking scene of realism that shows the reality of her very real situation, Amy, not allowed to use the bathroom, pees her sweatpants.

The next day, Wayne comes to the house to find Amy, only to find a seductive Martha at the back door (not a euphemism). Martha tells him that Amy has gone on a school trip to Sea World, but he sees through her ruse, as of course he goes to the same school as Amy.

When Martha drives to the store, Grandma gets a pickaxe from the garage and then calls the police.

Unfortunately, Martha returns quickly, and Grandma must hang up the phone before she is connected to the police. Shockingly, she is slashed in the throat by Martha with a cordless electric knife.

Wayne returns at night, and Martha attempts to seduce him in her nightgown. Of course, the seduction is not successful, so Wayne goes downstairs to wait for Amy, which gives Martha time to concoct another death trap, this one involving a bucket full of gasoline that she tosses over Wayne. She then strikes a match. “Is Amy prettier than I? Is she sexier than I? Huh?”

Wayne punches Martha in the face, knocking her out.

He finds Amy in the bedroom (which is now revealed to have a window, a fact that raises many questions about Amy’s ability or willingness to escape the house). Wayne and Amy sneak through the house to escape, but they find that Martha has been hiding in the car with her matches. This results in a flaming boyfriend—one who unfortunately forgets to stop, drop, and roll.

In the end, Amy digs a grave for Grandma and Wayne. “Is it deep another, Mother?” she asks.

Her mother says, “Let’s go get Wayne’s corpse.”

Will Amy follow in her father’s footsteps and do her mother’s bidding forever? In the final sequence, we see that there is a surprise answer, one which I will not reveal here—except to say that the final shots are both shocking and satisfying.

Above all else, Epitaph shows what would happen if family members refused to stand up to a psychotic mother. Bad things, that is what would happen. And Epitaph is unambiguous in its controversial stance that bad things would indeed happen--including a teenage daughter missing school.

Epitaph should also be used as a training film for mental health professionals. Shirley the psychiatrist is an excellent role model for anyone entering the mental health field, as she is willing to do nearly anything to help her patient (or rather the wife of her patient). Her inspired tactic of pretending to be a neighbor and ingratiating herself with her patient's family should be a required part of the training for psychiatrists and psychologists, if it is not already. The fact that Shirley meets an unfortunate demise when a rat chews through her stomach should not dissuade any aspiring mental health practitioners; the film is fictional, after all.

Among its other high points, Epitaph is well set up for a sequel--one that, unfortunately, was never made. Perhaps someday we will experience the further adventures of Amy and her mother Martha (one or both of whom might be dead at the end of Epitaph--spoiler).

Well...probably not.