Monday, February 22, 2021

“Must Have Been Some Phone Pervert” - Shadows Run Black (1984) - Film #198

Following in the footsteps of The Zodiac Killer (1971) and to a lesser extent Another Son of Sam (1977), Shadows Run Black (1984, or 1981, or 1986?) is an exploitation slasher film that takes some of its contents from recent true-life serial killings, in this case the Night Stalker murders terrorizing Los Angeles in 1984, despite the fact that it begins as a deep-woods slasher film.

As usual, some of your universe's critics have reviewed Shadows Run Black poorly. For example, reviewer davido-2 writes, "The dodgy lighting and wooden sets are here in all their glory,obviously a very low-budget effort all round." Reviewer Angelus-16 calls the film "One of the very worst slasher films ever made." And reviewer Coventry writes, "'Shadows Run Black' is a misogynic, incoherent, clichéd, zero-budgeted and laughably inept slasher attempt."

Read on for the truth about Shadows Run Black...

In a forest, a woman is chased by a man with a stick, both of them giggling maniacally. She starts removing her clothes and leaving them in her path, leading him toward an old car. “Oh, Carol,” he calls before finding her in the back seat. They make love, after which he explains that he has two nicknames for the car: the Love Tub and the Fab Cab. When the sun sets, she returns to their nearby cabin while he climbs underneath the car to work on the engine. Unfortunately for the poor mechanic, someone approaches and drags him from underneath the car.

Seconds later, his girlfriend arrives but cannot find him. She investigates the open hood, and then is killed when the killer smashes the hood closed. Blood drips from the car to the dirt. (Tragically, we never find out what happens to the Love Tub.)

The next day, at the busiest police station in the universe, we meet Mark and Rydell, two detectives assigned to the murders, which are apparently linked to a series of murders by a “co-ed killer” nicknamed The Black Angel. Rydell (who resembles William Sadler) interviews Lee Faulkner, a college student who knew the victim and has looked through some photos of potential killers, but who doesn’t recognize any of them. “What about James Scott?” Rydell asks her. “Don’t you know him? Wasn’t he going with Carol? And isn’t he now your current boyfriend and lover?”

Rydell escalates the interview into an interrogation when he accuses Lee of prostitution, even showing her a bag of powder from his desk. “You can save me a lot of trouble by finding Jimmy Scott,” he barks at her.

“How the hell am I supposed to find him?” she asks.

“Well now, if you can’t, I can,” he says, somewhat contradicting his previous statement. “I’ll give you exactly 24 hours to find James Scott. Huh?”

Later, at a college party at a small ranch house that features a brother act consisting of a tuxedoed magician and a tuxedoed cello player (like most such parties), Lee participates in a magic trick involving a handgun and a Tarot card deck. James Scott also attends the party—he is a drunk wearing a pink shirt and a satin jacket played by Kevin Costner. Lee wants to talk to him about the murder accusation, but when he rebuffs her she goes outside to the swimming pool and swims wearing only her panties.

In a suspenseful sequence, the outside lights are turned off and someone gets in the pool with Lee. “Damn you,” she says, assuming it is Mr. Costner. “I’m sick of you.” (Not, I might add, the last time someone has said these words referring to Mr. Costner.)

The unseen person pulls her under the water, then, perhaps expending more effort than necessary, lifts her up and strangles her.

When the police investigate the murder the next day, the medical examiner says, “She put up a hell of a fight.” (In fact, those of us in the audience would testify that she put up no fight whatsoever.)

Elsewhere, at night, a young woman named Judy who was at the party gets phone calls from a man whispering, “I’m coming to get you.” Despite the rash of killings, she thinks it’s just a practical joke. In the morning, her boyfriend picks her up in his car and she tells him about the call. “Must have been some phone pervert,” he says.

They go to his apartment, but they are followed by Judy’s overprotective brother, with whom she lives, and whose speech patterns would not be out of place as an incidental character in a sitcom starring Lucille Ball or Jack Benny. While Judy and her boyfriend make out on his couch, her brother breaks in (smashing a chain lock off a door) and attacks the man. 

At dinner, Judy argues with her brother, telling him he really objects to the fact that her boyfriend is black (though she uses the n-word for shock effect).

It is time for another murder, so the filmmakers cut first to a woman taking a shower and then to a different woman returning home with groceries to her weightlifting boyfriend. Instead of putting away the groceries, the woman goes to her bedroom, strips naked, and freshens up by getting into the bathtub while her boyfriend retrieves two six-packs from the pickup truck. (Taking a bath, of course, takes the same amount of time as walking to the garage, though the woman saves time by not actually using a towel after her bath.) She sees a lump under the covers on the bed and pulls down the covers, only to be faced with a masked killer!

Judy receives another phone call from a whispering man, and this time he says he’s her father. This time, she and her brother call the police and tell them they think it was Jimmy Scott, whose advances Judy rebuffed. Rydell questions Judy and her family at their house, suggesting the victims were involved in drugs and prostitution. Judy’s sister-in-law says, “What you’re implying to us is that Jimmy Scott may be some sort of moral vigilante.”

“That could possibly be his MO, yes.”

Judy goes to her boyfriend Billy’s apartment, where he treats her coldly because of her brother’s attack on him. (I find myself more interested in an article in the newspaper he is reading headlined “A devil wind takes publisher for a ride.”) When she returns to her brother’s house, Judy witnesses her sister-in-law having sex with another man, a scene accompanied by jaunty comedic music for some reason.

Elsewhere, yet another couple makes love in the middle of the day. Afterward, when the woman goes to the kitchen completely nude to make coffee, she is attacked by a killer who lifts her off the ground, but in a clever touch her dozing boyfriend simply uses the remote in the bedroom to turn off the TV, assuming the screams are coming from the movie they were watching.

The police finally find Kevin Costner (i.e., Jimmy Scott). When they question him in an interrogation room with a window, horizontal blinds, and a glowing red light outside apparently advertising a disreputable motel, Jimmy proves unhelpful but they book him anyway. 

As the astute viewer might expect, Mr. Costner turns out not to be the killer. We are introduced to new characters when a young blonde woman scares her roommate with a rubber mask.

“I was trying to scare you off your fat ass into getting a job,” the woman explains, uncharitably but earnestly, as she clearly feels startling her friend with a mask will prompt her to apply for gainful employment.

Of course, after she is done cajoling her friend, the blonde woman goes upstairs to her room and strips naked, then climbs into the shower. After a few minutes, she hears the teakettle whistling, so she investigates by going downstairs. In the nude. Attempting to check on her baby, she sees the killer, then hides in the downstairs bathroom (which appears to be the same bathroom in which she took a shower, which was upstairs).

In the film’s most shocking scene, the killer cuts through the door with a meat cleaver, the first blow cutting the woman’s head. She cowers in the shower...

...and the film cuts back to the police investigation the next day. A priest bearing some resemblance to Boris Karloff talks to Rydell about one of the murders. Clearly insane, the priest eventually admits to murdering the girl by using his hands, whom he calls Jack and Bob. Rydell books him, and presumably Jack and Bob as well.

Judy and her boyfriend have a tryst at her house when Judy gets another call, proving that Kevin Costner was not the killer. The film then cuts to the next morning, when Judy’s brother gets a phone call from the killer, who says he has kidnapped Judy. Her brother decides not to call the police but to take his handgun and go to an address the killer gave him, which turns out to be an abandoned jail. Judy’s brother walks through the jail, and he is joined by Judy’s boyfriend, who has learned the location of the meeting place from Judy’s sister-in-law.

After about ten minutes of walking through the jail, Judy’s brother shoots her boyfriend, believing him to be the kidnapper. Her brother rescues Judy. “You’ve killed the wrong person,” she says with mild sadness in her voice. “I think it’s Franklin. I saw him making love to Helen in your bed.” (Helen is the sister-in-law and Franklin is her lover, also Judy’s brother’s business partner.)

When her brother runs out to take care of the killer, we hear a gunshot, and her brother falls to the ground. However, the killer turns out to be Sgt. Rydell. In the climax, Judy runs to the roof, chased by Rydell as well as her barely-alive boyfriend. On the roof, Rydell reveals his motivation to kill the innocent-looking college girls who are actually into things like drugs, prostitution, and stripping. “That’s why those and the others had to be disposed of. Weeded out. Because they were strangling the innocent ones, just like they did my Judy. Judy...she was such a sweet little girl. A good little girl. But they sought to change her, to contaminate her. I couldn’t let it happen again. I had to save you. You’re so much like my Judy.”

In the climax, Rydell tries to throw her boyfriend off the roof but Judy grabs the detective’s gun and shoots him. He falls off the roof and dies while Judy helps her boyfriend up. They walk across the roof, in the opposite direction of the exit stairway, for some reason.

The End

The most notable aspect of Shadows Run Black is often said to be Kevin Costner's appearance soon before (or soon after, depending on whether you refer to the film's production date or release date) his attaining a certain degree of fame. However, true horror film connoisseurs know that the film's real claims to fame are its prodigious female nudity (about which I will say no more) and its innovative structure. The film's opening sequence occurs at a cabin in the woods, while the rest of the film is a suburban slasher structured around home invasions, not dissimilar to The Toolbox Murders (1978). As such, it is a truly terrifying reminder that police detectives with ambiguous guilt about their possibly dead daughters are out there in the world, ready to kill attractive young women in mundane, down-to-earth ranch homes and apartment complexes.

Also, a lot of people in this film address others improperly by using their last names as first names. Kevin Costner's character James Scott is repeatedly called "Scott" and "Scotty," while Lt. Rydell King is addressed as "Lt. Rydell." The awkward confusion of inappropriately calling someone by their last name is nearly as terrifying as the strangulations and murders in this film -- though, of course, not nearly as terrifying as the headline “A devil wind takes publisher for a ride.”