Monday, April 27, 2020

“Tell Us Your Thoughts on the United States and the Laws of Physics” - Hellmaster (1992) aka Them - Film #176

It is time to examine Douglas Schulze's 1993 film Hellmaster aka Them, which features horror film stalwarts John Saxon and David Emge. Rarely has there been a more coherent film about the dangers of drug experimentation by religious cults than Hellmaster.

Even a film as entertaining and stylish as Hellmaster cannot satisfy your universe's critics, it seems. Reviewer RatedVforVinny writes, "One of the very worst horror movies, with very little merit and even less credibility. avoid." Reviewer vivekmaru45 writes, "I have written this review as a final word NOT TO SEE THIS FILM UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. As a horror viewer for over 25 years and I have seen at least a 1000 horror films, my message is again - STEER CLEAR OF THIS ONE." And reviewer nev_the_bassist writes, "Admittedly I did watch it with a smile, but this was a smile of disbelief due to how badly [sic] the film is badly [sic] written, not to mention the bad edited with audio levels all over the place. All in all the shiny little disc would make a rather nice coaster for your mug of tea."

Read on for a true picture of this fascinating film...

The film begins with an epigram: “God Is Dead — Nietzsche.”

A man played by David Emge speaks on the phone, asking the operator to keep trying to contact his wife. Then, presumably frustrated he can’t speak with her directly, he starts typing a letter to her. “I fear my life is in danger,” he  narrates as he types, a pen clutched between his teeth. “While reporting on the recent homeless epidemic, we accidentally uncovered an unholy terror deep beneath the streets of the city.”

The film flashes back to Mr. Emge descending a staircase and opening a door with a painted cross on it, only to find  a group of young adults, most of whom are dead, all of whom have red crosses on their foreheads.

Then we return to the present, as a group of zombies visit Mr. Emge in his office and, typically for zombies, give him a pocket watch. He laughs maniacally. We see John Saxon’s face as Mr. Saxon asks, “Tell me, what do you see?”

The film moves on to the Kant (pronounced “can’t”) Institute of Technology six months later. In a lecture hall, students wearing headsets watch a live video of Professor Damon, teacher of their freshman seminar, their only first-year class. He tells them, “The majority of our graduates go on to prestigious positions” within the FBI and the CIA. The video professor’s first assignment is to show the class a video and ask what they see.

“I see a lot of televisions,” says a student named Joel, referring to the video screens at the front of the lecture hall.

As the U.S. flag appears on TV, the professor says, “Barbara, tell us your thoughts on the United States and the laws of physics.”

“Politics?” says Barbara.

A student named Shelly says, “Is God an issue here? If so, is America God’s tool or do we create God as a tool for America?”

As the freshman spew eloquent freshman-style philosophies, a shadowy man appears at the back of the lecture hall. “Leave here tonight,” he warns, then walks out of the room. Nobody pays him any heed.

Later, we see Professor Damon in a psychic lab, where Shelly, the student who brought up God, sits at a TV crumpling up sheets of paper with symbols from Zener cards, the cards used in ESP research. Joel, the student who mentioned a lot of televisions and who walks with braces, enters the lab while Damon leaves. Apropos of nothing, Joel tells Shelly, “I suppose you’ve heard about that creepy guy hanging out by the abandoned chapel.”

“Yeah, I’ve seen him,” says Shelly.

They talk about some kind of accident that occurred at the campus chapel in the 1960s when research was done with experimental drugs.

Meanwhile, a young woman named Tracy is on her way to her first day at the Kant Institute, but her father’s station wagon has broken down on the side of the road. After mentioning that her father sells linoleum waterbeds, whatever that means, Tracy sits in the car with her sister and smokes.

A sinister bus labeled “HAPPY FACE BIBLE SCHOOL” pulls up near the broken-down car at the exact time a news bulletin comes on the radio indicating that bible school students and their bus driver were recently murdered. Nevertheless, Tracy investigates the bus on her own, where we see a person wearing an ill-fitting nun costume appear behind Tracy.

A pair of legs (presumably belonging to Tracy’s father) disappears under the bus, pulled by someone we don’t see. Tracy backs into the nun, screams, and tries to drive away, but another sinister figure appears in the back seat, resulting in more screaming.

We don’t see Tracy’s fate, but we are introduced further to the freshman: in addition to Shelly (the religious one) and Joel (the disabled one), we meet Drake (the liberal one), Jesse (the libertarian one), and Barb (the attractive one).

Like most college freshmen, Jesse carries a whip, which he uses to both knock Joel over (under a portrait of Edgar Allan Poe) and whip Drake’s hand, drawing blood. After Jesse and Barb leave, Shelly tells Drake to have his bleeding hand tended to at the clinic.

“Clinic?” he says, and for some reason adds, “They don’t even have security around here.”

“Careful what you say,” Shelly says. “My brother is one of these non-existent security guys.”

Moments later, Drake uses the age-old pickup line: “So, do you read minds?”

When Drake walks toward the art gallery, he passes Professor Damon. The filmmakers show a shot of a pearl-handed handgun in someone’s belt—it appears that Drake is carrying a gun, but later we see that it was actually Professor Damon’s pants hiding the gun (not a euphemism).

Professor Damon enters an abandoned chapel, where he confronts Mr. Emge, who has stumbled upon files indicating the “accident” with the students died at the chapel. “It was an accident. The church caught fire. What more do you need to know?”

“Answers,” Mr. Emge says. “I need to know about this.” He pushes aside a surprisingly light bookcase to reveal a doorway into  corridor leading to a red-tinted room. Tantalizingly, he says, “There’s enough of that stuff down there to breed armies of those things.”

Helpfully, Mr. Emge explains his backstory, though Professor Damon is probably aware of it already. “I’ve lost everything I ever cared about because of that madman. When I linked a series of supposed random murders to the Jones cult, I suddenly lost my job. No one would tell me why? Do you know why?”

Professor Damon is equally helpful in his explanation of past events, of which, of course, Mr. Emge is also aware. “Twenty years ago, this place looked like a Nazi prison camp. But it wasn’t our fault. The program was young. Things went astray. It was time for the super men.”

The film flashes back to the 1960s as the professor narrates. “We dubbed it Project Nietzsche after the philosopher. Back then, a lot of young minds were destroyed by something which, if used properly, could increase mental powers.”

Professor Damon pulls his gun on Mr. Emge (not a euphemism), but he is distracted by Drake entering the room. Mr. Emge punches the professor. The gun is never seen again. However, Mr. Emge is suddenly armed with a hypodermic needle.

Mr. Emge tells Drake to leave and tell everyone what is going on, so he does. Mr. Emge forces Professor Damon into the corridor. “Who killed those students?”

Suddenly, a silhouette appears at the end of the corridor.

“Let him be, Robert,” says the unmistakable voice of John Saxon, playing Professor Jones. “Please call me Papa.” He joins in the fun of explaining the plot. “After twenty years, my drug works. It induces genetic changes that I find truly interesting. I use it myself in a somewhat more sedate dosage.”

Instead of questioning Mr. Saxon’s use of the word “sedate,” Mr. Emge runs away. We hear Professor Damon scream.

Meanwhile, Shelly’s security guard brother Adam investigates a power failure, which is somehow caused by the Bible School school bus parked at the university’s front gate. Adam’s partner investigates, only to come face to face with...a Strawberry Shortcake lunchbox on the ground. As he bends over to investigate, a noose slips around his neck. Adam discovers his partner swinging against the bus.

Adam is also strangled by a man in the back seat.

Back in the dorms, Jesse, perhaps improbably, has taken a young woman into a secret room for a pornographic photo shoot with a promise that his “producer friends” will look at her photos. When lights go off outside, the group gets together and Drake tells them something is going on.

From inside the campus police station, Shelly sees the police car pull up, dragging the bodies of Adam and his partner, though Adam is still alive. The mysterious nun enters the station and injects a three-pointed hypodermic needle into the neck of a little person that we have never seen before who wears a suit and tie. This turns the little person into a zombie and for some reason allows the nun to remove her costume, revealing a woman in a schoolgirl uniform—though in the next shot she is the nun again. Possibly.

Outside, Jesse, Drake, and Joel find the evil school bus. A creepy man emerges from the police car.

Drake and Joel, ostensibly the heroes, run into the woods to leave Jesse, armed only with his freshman whip, to confront the monster, who says, “If you understood who we’ve become, you’d understand the need, the utter need, for reward.”

The monster attacks with a policeman’s baton, then he throws the baton to Jesse. Seconds later, he retrieves the baton, pushes a button, and reveals the baton is equipped with a spring-loaded blade, with which he hacks at poor Jesse.

After the monster is gone, apparently to add insult to injury, Joel grabs Jesse’s whip.

In an extended suspense sequence, the little person attacks a college kid we’ve never seen before named Paul; the filmmakers intercut another extended suspense sequence in which David Emge uses a crossbow that shoots hypodermic needles to try to stop the evil nun, who is chasing a little girl (first victim Tracy’s little sister, who has somehow arrived on campus without anybody seeing her until now). Mr. Emge is allowed to utter the immortal line, “So were you, like, a real nun, or is that your evening wear?”

In the end, Paul dies, corroded by acid (and heartlessly abandoned by Barb, who witnessed his death throes), and the nun is killed by whatever is in the hypodermic.

Meanwhile, in Poe Hall, Shelly finds that the residents have been massacred by the woman in the schoolgirl uniform that appeared out of the nun’s uniform earlier. She also kills Adam (again) while Barb watches. Coincidentally, John Saxon (aka “Papa”) also appears as Barb watches. He carries the nun’s body and offers the airtight syllogism: “If a god created this world in six days, and I can make hell of it in one night, then God must be dead.”

Papa and his monsters leave, and Shelly joins Barb over Adam’s lifeless body. Unfortunately, the little person named Joey walks toward them, but Shelly has picked up a revolver from the police station. Unfortunately again, the revolver is jammed. However, David Emge shows up in the nick of time with his hypodermic-launching crossbow to save the day. His shot causes Joey to die, bleeding green fluid through his nose.

Mr. Emge explains that John Saxon’s chemical is an acid that dissolves the brain, unless it is diluted with your own blood, in which case, it makes you a monster and a slave.

Meanwhile, the biggest monster, known as Bobby Razorface, helps the schoolgirl string Professor Damon up on the stage of the theatre/lecture hall. When Mr. Emge and Drake investigate, Bobby Razorface injects Mr. Emge with the drug, using the triple-needle contraption that mixes the chemical with blood—turning Mr. Emge into one of the monsters.

Elsewhere, Joel questions Barb about his being jealous of other men, despite the fact that Barb has never shown any romantic interest in him.

“Joel, this isn’t the time,” she says.

“When is the time? When do you have time for the cripple?”

“Paul is dead! So is Shelley’s brother! All you can do is think about yourself. I saw them killed! Look at me!”

Then Joel says, “My handicap was born. Yours was chosen.” (It is not clear what he believes Barb’s handicap to be, unfortunately. Selfishness, perhaps? Or, more likely, not being attracted to Joel?)

Feeling sorry for himself, Joel walks away, only to stumble across Mr. Saxon at the end of a psychedelic hallway. (Finally, the film offers a realistic depiction of a hallway on a college campus.)

“If I can make them,” Mr. Saxon says, in another master stroke of logic, “I can make God.”

Mr. Saxon offers to use his drug to make Joel “whole.” “Come to Papa,” Mr. Saxon says. Of course, Joel accepts without question.

Meanwhile, Shelly gives Barb her revolver, while taking the whip for herself. Somehow, Mr. Saxon is able to force his visions on the students even though they have not taken his drug. Shelly sees a casket sliding down the hallway, revealing her dead brother Adam, while Barb sees herself as pregnant, stalked by the now monstrous Joel (whom she kills, with little effort, with his own crutches). Despite these surreal visions, Drake and Shelly manage to kill the schoolgirl monster by shooting her in the head.

“It’s an illusion,” Drake says. “But how?”

There is no answer.

“These things are controlled by drugs,” Shelly says.

“I don’t follow,” Drake says.

She stumbles upon an idea that seems to make sense to her: “Maybe strong minds, like the leader, can control it. And us.”

Like most terrified people in similar situations, the groups split up, with Drake taking the gun and the women going to the auditorium, where Barb is immediately killed by Bobby Razorface. However, Shelly has managed to get a triple needle somewhere, and she uses it to lure Bobby Razorface into a vulnerable position, managing to jam the needle into the back of his head instead of his neck, which for some reason kills him.

In the fracas leading to the final chase, Shelly injects Mr. Saxon with his own drug, perhaps a foolish move. Drake runs off in one direction and Shelly runs off in another, stumbling into Mr. Emge, who has not been turned into a monster despite being captured earlier. Shelly has realized something about herself, and she finally shares it with the audience: “He can put thoughts in your mind. This drug. You use it straight and it kills. He controls it and creates hallucinations. I can control it. I have the power!”

She makes Mr. Emge inject the drug into her neck. Then Mr. Saxon forces Mr. Emge to inject the straight drug into his own arm while Mr. Saxon recites his manifesto: “Why should I be persecuted when mankind kills mankind in the name of a god that doesn’t exist? How can the government bury me when they gave life to me? How can you judge me when you glamorized me every step of the way?”

In the final confrontation, Shelly forces Mr. Saxon to see hallucinations of his own fears—which amounts to a flashback to the 1960s.

A voice from nowhere says, “Could it be possible god is dead?”

Shelly takes offense. “No. God isn’t dead. Death is mortal. God is not mortal, evil is. And you, you are evil. Life is immortal. God…God is life.”

“Words,” says Mr. Saxon dismissively.

Tracy’s little sister, not previously in the scene, grabs a hypodermic and injects Mr. Saxon, who cries out, “D’oh!” before both dissolving and burning to death.

And Mr. Saxon isn’t there anymore—though in a chilling epilogue someone wearing black gloves steals the corpse’s ring.

Hellmaster is a tribute to creative filmmaking and design, so we will say nothing about the "art gallery" at the Kant Institute, a hallway filled with the best work, clearly, of a handful of kindergarteners who got together for thirty minutes to create line drawings to the best of their abilities.

In addition to being an ideal example of the colorful monster movies of the early 1990s in line with Metamorphosis (1990) and Creatures from the Abyss (1994), Hellmaster is a rare example of a film in which the quality of the dialogue and the quality of the acting are completely in sync. The young actors have no difficulty saying lines like "Is America God’s tool or do we create God as a tool for America?"--lines at which other, "serious" actors might balk. The film is also graced by the presences of David Emge and John Saxon, and it must be admitted that the sight of David Emge sporting a bandolier full of hypodermic needles is an image not soon forgotten.