Monday, November 1, 2021

“You Know, That Occult Stuff” - Family Reunion (1989) - Film #216

Let's look at an under discussed supernatural horror film directed by the writer of One Dark Night (1982), the Christmas-set Family Reunion (1989), featuring a rare leading-man performance by the intense Mel Novak, best known for his roles as action movie villains.

Not all of your universe's critics appreciate Family Reunion, unfortunately. For example, prolific reviewer Leofwine_draca writes extensively, "It's all very convoluted and underwritten, with poorly-defined characters and a general lack of interesting performers to do justice in their roles. The pacing is all off too, which means this just sort of dawdles along aimlessly until the final twist at the climax. I found it a chore." Reviewer poolandrews writes lukewarmly, "Family Reunion is average at best, it was too long & just a bit too dull for it to do anything for me I'm afraid." And reviewer twisted_sista writes cryptically, "The fx arent up to scratch either. There are scenes in the film that drag a little so if your not the one with patience dont bother with this!"

Read on to experience the Christmastime wonders of Family Reunion...

Family Reunion opens as all Christmas movies should: with the title superimposed over black and white images of a pitchfork-wielding mob rushing to break up a Satanic ritual of some kind while a funky disco version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” plays. As the film begins, mob arrives at the Satanic ceremony just as a toddler is about to be sacrificed inside a pentagram.

The location is ambiguous as to whether it is inside or outside; there appear to be gray walls defining a medium-sized room but fog drifts through the scene. In an intense exchange, one of the mob’s members fires a shotgun at all the Satanists, killing them without the aid of the pitchfork-wielders.

The film cuts from the black-and-white ceremony to a man and woman, Tom and Kathy, waking up in bed, in color. Tom says he had a dream and his wife questions him as only a therapist would. “Devil worship? And you’ve been dreaming this for how long?”

“About once a year, about this time, as long as I can remember. What’s the verdict, doc?”

They go back to bed, only to wake up in the morning and pack for their Christmas drive to Kathy’s family in Silver Springs, though Tom mentions he’s agreed to make a stop in Sutterville, the town from the opening dream, to please their son Billy.

Seconds later, in a uniquely comedic sequence, Billy throws a water balloon at his elderly grandfather (“Do you want your grandpa to croak with a heart attack?”) and then trips in the driveway and falls, bursting another water balloon all over his crotch. His teenage sister Erin emerges from the house carrying a massive boom box playing light rock. “Aren’t you a bit old for that?” she asks Billy, staring at the little boy’s crotch.

“It’s water, pea brain,” he shoots back before running into the house. The entire sequence is light and funny, the jokes only slightly undermined by sledgehammer-like editing and Tom’s intense staring at Grandpa, and they truly show director Michael Hawes’s deft knack for comedy.

Eventually, the trip gets underway and the family drives through the high desert singing “Jingle Bells.” The comedy continues as Kathy asks what to sing next. “How about ‘Like a Virgin’?” Erin says.

“Like a what?” Tom asks intensely.

“A virgin.”

“As in Virgin Mary?”

“No, Dad. As in Madonna. Get with it.”

Of course, the family won’t sing something so blasphemous, so they launch into “Deck the Halls” before Billy terrifies Grandpa with a rubber snake. “Enough with the jokes for the rest of the trip,” Kathy warns.

In the next shot, Grandpa is smoking a cigarette in the back seat next to the kids.

After a shot of a dead rabbit in the desert, the comedy continues as Billy asks about ghosts in the ghost town of Sutterville. Erin tells him there is no such thing as ghosts, and adds, “Unlike you, little one, I was born with a device that enables me to differentiate between fact and fantasy.”

“What device?”

“A brain.”

Sutterville turns out to be an abandoned but fairly large town full of brick buildings, whistling wind, and a man who can turn into smoke at will.

Through some kind of Satanic psychokinesis, the man strangles the local deputy (played by actor/director Jack Starrett, who would tragically pass away the same year this film was released), but his powers only injure the man rather than killing him, allowing the sheriff and the deputy to handcuff the man and take him to jail. 

The family drives toward Sutterville while arguing over the meaning of “ghost town.”

On the way into town, Tom flags down the passing sheriff’s car for no apparent reason, and the sheriff gives him a helpful history lesson about Sutterville. “About 40 years ago, that’s according to who’s telling the story, townfolk were involved in some sort of voodoo or black magic. You know, that occult stuff. Someone got pissed off, excuse me ma’am, and blew them away. Thirteen in all. Happened around Christmas Eve.”

“This is Christmas Eve,” Tom says profoundly.

“So it is. What a coincidence.” The sheriff drives away with Jack Starrett in the car and the mysterious man in the back seat.

In an interesting twist, and despite Billy’s protestations, Tom decides to avoid Sutterville, but unfortunately for the family, the mysterious vagrant psychically drives their car the rest of the way into town. They stop in front of the hardware store, but the car is damaged and leaking fluids, and, even more alarmingly, a boom mike appears at the top of the frame.

(Note that while the phrase “ghost town” might imply an abandoned wild west village with dirt streets and wooden buildings and crazy prospectors played by Jim Backus, Sutterville is a mid-sized city dotted with telephone poles and five-story brick buildings abandoned in 1948.)

Elsewhere, in another scene demonstrating the mysterious stranger’s ability to psychically control cars, a policewoman at the sheriff’s station is knocked off a ladder while hanging up Christmas lights and killed when she falls onto a police car.

The psychic control of cars is paralleled back in the ghost town as Billy operates a remote-controlled toy car, which leads to his encounter with a mysterious young girl wearing all white who beckons him into an alley.

The others discover Billy is missing and spend an inordinate amount of time looking for him. Tom and Kathy wander through the abandoned hotel, experiencing minor ghostly phenomena like echoing voices and ghosts Kathy sees but the audience doesn’t, while Erin and Grandpa wander through a vacant lot, eventually finding the boy when he runs out of the alley. (It must be said the film’s hilarious jokes about Madonna songs and rubber snakes are sorely missed by the audience at this point.)

The filmmakers cut to the mysterious man having his mug shot taken in real time, a fascinating process that involves turning both to the right and to the left.

In the hotel, Billy recounts what happened with the little girl, who tried to take him to the church at the end of the street and then disappeared after blaming Grandpa for something or other. She also gave Billy a Satanic amulet, to which Erin takes an interest. “Hey, that’s cute. Can I wear it?”

“No!” yells Grandpa. 

“Why not?”

“It’s evil!”

“That’s got to be worth something,” Erin says. “What are you going to do with it?”

Grandpa replies, “I’m going to bury it, Erin.”

“God, what a waste.” Erin files her fingernails, like any American teenager would. “I’d look real cool in that.”

Meanwhile, at the sheriff’s station, the mysterious man telekinetically strangles a punk who threatens him in a long, long sequence. Also, a prostitute taken to the station tells the sheriff, “All you cops are funny. As in hemorrhoids.”

Instead of questioning Grandpa about his bizarre behavior and the ghost girl’s accusation that he is to blame for their current situation, the family allows Grandpa to bury the medallion about an inch deep in the dirt. Tom cleans the windshield and finally asks Grandpa what is going on, though he is more interested in the fact that both he and his father wear similar crucifixes. “You need God’s protection, Tom,” Grandpa says when Tom shows his father his handgun which, as a police officer, he keeps in an ankle holster.

“God? What do you mean, God? You never even let us go to church.” Brandishing his weapon, Tom says, “This is the only protection I need.”

Later, in front of the car, tensions run high among the family. “I can’t get rid of this damn headache,” Tom complains. Kathy volunteers to get him some aspirin, but he says, “Don’t you have anything stronger?”

“I’m a doctor, Tom, not a drugstore,” she replies.

“Well, what the hell kind of doctor are you?”

“One that treats her family like human beings. What the hell kind of father are you?” She walks to the trunk but then returns to Tom. “Where’s the luggage?”

“What do you mean, where’s the luggage. Didn’t you take it into the hotel?”

“What would I do that for? Do we have reservations?”

Billy and Erin have been watching this bitter exchange. “God,” Erin says, “I don’t believe this.”

“A ghost took it,” Billy says.

“Shut up!” Erin retorts.

Then Tom shakes Billy by the shoulders when he learns Billy left his remote control car a few blocks away.

Also, the rubber snake in the car is now a real rattlesnake, and it threatens Erin in the back of the station wagon, but when Tom opens the door it is the rubber snake again.

“Let’s go home,” says Kathy.

“We are home,” Tom says ominously.

The family gets in the car, planning to continue their trip to Kathy’s family, but the mysterious man at the sheriff’s station (whose name is Clarence McLaughlin, according to the police) psychically makes the car’s battery disappear, forcing Tom to venture into the ghost town to look for it.

Back at the sheriff’s station, the mysterious man escapes when a deputy finds the body of the dead punk. The deputy’s surprise allows McLaughlin to simply walk out of the cell and slide the door shut (locks, off course, not being involved at this particular sheriff’s station). McLaughlin approaches Jack Starrett in the parking garage. When Mr. Starrett tries to stop him, the man simply walks away, forcing Mr. Starrett to pull out his baton (not a euphemism) and follow him. At gunpoint, Mr. Starrett tells McLaughlin to “Kiss that concrete, doofus.”

Unfortunately for Mr. Starrett, McLaughlin uses his psychic tricks to disappear through a glass phone booth placed conveniently in the vast, empty parking garage. The phone rings, luring Mr. Starrett into the empty booth, and McLaughlin traps Mr. Starrett inside. Then McLaughlin uses his telekinetic powers to force Mr. Starrett to shoot himself (offscreen).

All this mayhem leads to McLaughlin stealing a motorcycle and driving back to Sutterville to strengthen his psychic link to Tom.

Tom, meanwhile, finds a door adorned with a metal ankh. The presence of Billy’s R/C car suggests Billy might be inside, so Tom enters the building, which might or might not be a Satanic place based on the chanting music on the soundtrack. Tom does not find Billy, but he does find two black-robed thugs who punch him in the stomach and refer to him as Brother Matthew.

Fortunately for the family, Kathy finds a newspaper describing the fateful Satanist massacre while rummaging through a back room in the hotel. She is surprised by a female ghost who says the family should stay in Sutterville…permanently. “Your children are very beautiful,” she tells Kathy.

“Uh, thanks. You’ve met them?”

“I’ve met them,” the ghostly woman replies. “They look a lot like my son.”

“That’s nice.”

“He’s finally come home. Soon we will be together. Tonight, he will join us.”

“Listen, honey,” Kathy says, “I don’t know who you really are or what you really want, but I can refer you to a good therapist who can help you figure it out.” She bends over, only to find out the ghostly woman has pulled a Batman number on her and vanished.

Returning to the lobby, Kathy realizes she has found another amulet. Erin asks if she can have this one but Kathy says no. When asked why, Kathy says, somewhat confusingly, “Because I don’t think it’s meant to bring good luck, and right now we could use a bunch of it.”

A few seconds later, out of all context, we see McLaughlin riding the stolen motorcycle and laughing like someone on his way to visit Dr. Caligari.

At the hotel, Kathy answers a ringing phone (this takes approximately five minutes). She hears the ghostly woman say what she said earlier about Billy coming home. Then she sits back down with Billy and Erin to wait for Tom or Grandpa, who has left a note saying the past has caught up to them and to pray for Tom. 

In perhaps the film’s most dramatic and intense scene, though one whose effectiveness is somewhat lessened by the fact that it is obviously a dream, Tom appears in the hotel lobby wearing a black robe and shoots his family, then giggles maniacally.

Tom awakens to find himself surrounded by black-robed people, including the mysterious McLaughlin, near some kind of ceremonial altar. “Who are you people?” Tom says. Then he adds, somewhat confusingly, “You’re not real. You don’t exist.”

McLaughlin says, “Welcome home, my true and only son.” He explains that Tom is really McLaughlin’s son, while Grandpa is really Tom’s “sanctimonious” uncle.

When McLaughlin calls Tom Matthew, the actor playing Tom (action movie villain Mel Novak) gives his best growling delivery: “I’m not Matthew, damn youuuuuuu!”

McLaughlin uses an amulet to hypnotize Tom to leave and bring back Billy, so Tom walks like a zombie through the building.

Back at the police station, an all-out manhunt is put together to chase after McLaughlin, whose only crime is vagrancy—a manhunt joined by the state police, the FBI, and the Highway Patrol, for some reason. They receive a lead when the police station janitor, a man who looks like he is in his mid-30s, says he knows McLaughlin because they both lived in Sutterville. The sheriff says, “How the hell could he have lived there 40 years ago, you old coot? This character’s in his twenties.”

Tom finds his family and lures them to the car while he kidnaps Billy and brings him back to the ceremony, where a table is covered, for unknown reasons, with decaying, worm-riddled meat.

The Satanists tie up Billy so they can sacrifice him at midnight. Meanwhile, Kathy stumbles upon the building with the ankh on the door and explains out loud to herself that Tom taught her how to use a handgun. She checks to see the weapon is loaded and makes her way to the unguarded ceremony, unaware she is being followed by straggler cultists.

Then she sets down the gun to pick up a lantern and forgets the gun on a shelf.

During the ceremony, McLaughlin bloodies his hands using the rancid meat while the ghostly girl tells Billy in the flattest delivery imaginable, “Don’t be afraid, Billy. It’s almost Christmas. You’re about to receive a wonderful gift.”

In the climactic sequence, Kathy retrieves the gun and shoots a few cultists while McLaughlin gives Tom the ceremonial dagger so he can stab Billy in the middle of a pentagram. Surprisingly, Tom does not stab his little boy, even though he is under the Satanists’ influence, and Kathy and Billy run away. The movie cuts to entertaining action mode as Tom fights off a dozen Satanists. 

McLaughlin confronts Kathy on the stairs. He blames Kathy for destroying his intended family reunion. “I have failed my master and he is punishing me. But I can tell you one thing. When I leave to join him in Hell, you will be with me!”

McLaughlin punches Kathy, but Tom grabs the Satanist and the two fight. Fortunately for Tom, McLaughlin does not use his psychic and telekinetic powers, or even his ability to turn into fog. Tom plunges a sharp wooden cross that was just lying around into McLaughlin, apparently killing him as the sharp and now bloody end bursts through the Satanist’s chest.

(McLaughlin’s reaction is akin to nothing more than Death’s reaction to a “Melvin” in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey from 1991.)

The film cuts to Christmas morning and returns to comedy mode as Erin tells her parents she’s not into music on cassette tapes anymore. Tom gives Kathy a ring (“Is it real?” Erin asks) and Billy opens a present without a label. Shockingly, his remote control car is inside the box. “This is my old truck. The one I left in Stutterville.”

“Sutterville,” Erin corrects.

Erin finds a set of amulets and a note. “Merry Christmas to you all,” she reads. “We’ve missed you. Hope you haven’t forgotten about us. We haven’t forgotten about you. We’re hard at work planning the next…family reunion. We’ll be expecting you.”

And back in Sutterville, McLaughlin opens his eyes.

Family Reunion at its center is a light-hearted family drama/comedy spiced up with Satan worship and maggoty meat. What could be more entertaining? Mel Novak is an intense presence as the father who is being psychically influenced by the evil, ghostly McLaughlin, and Mr. Novak's performance is just subtle enough that we're never sure if he is really at the Satanist's mercy or simply a poor parent. The other actors do a good job as well, especially Ken Corey as McLaughlin (apparently his only movie role) and of course Jack Starrett (who died tragically at age 52 in 1989, but not before gifting cinema audiences with films like Cleopatra Jones in 1973, Race with the Devil in 1975, Hollywood Man in 1976, and something called Kiss My Grits in 1982) as Charlie. The actors playing Mr. Novak's family are also fine. But the finest character, perhaps, is the town of Sutterville, a city abandoned in the 1940s full of big brick buildings, well-paved streets, and working plumbing and electricity, not to mention Satanists that might or might not be ghosts. It is an eerie setting comparable to the cities of Gatlin in Children of the Corn (1984) and Los Angeles in The Omega Man (1971), and it is unfortunate it was not given more screen time in Family Reunion.