Monday, February 20, 2023

"The Whole Event of this Scene Is to Show Some Skin" - Destroyer (1988)

We return to the 1980s to discuss Robert Kirk's Destroyer (1988), one of the late-eighties wave of prison-set slasher films that also includes Renny Harlin's Prison (1987), Wes Craven's Shocker (1989), and James Isaac's The Horror Show (1989) aka House III. 

As usual, some of your universe's critics fail to appreciate Destroyer. For example, reviewer quadbastard writes, "The pace can be quite lethargic at times, and the film is somewhat overlong, and seemingly doesn't know when to quit." Reviewer tarbosh22000 writes, "the writing and structure of the movie were slow, bleak, and not up to par." And reviewer FieCrier writes simply, "I can't recommend this movie at all."

Of course, these reviewers are incorrect. Read on for a more nuanced appreciation of a gem of a slasher film...

In the film’s opening, the camera moves through the foggy interior of a prison lit by strobe lights until it reaches the cell of the muscular Lyle Alzado as he watches a game show called Wheelers and Dealers on TV. For unknown reasons, the prison corridor is lined with televisions showing the game show. Mr. Alzado is obsessed with the show, a combination of Wheel of Fortune and Joker’s Wild—or, more specifically, he is obsessed with the Vannah White of the show. As the show continues throughout the prison, a young, bespectacled priest leads Mr. Alzado to the electric chair, housed in a chamber whose walls appear to be made of cardboard painted to appear like gray bricks. The prisoner is strapped into the chair while the priest recites the Lord’s Prayer, after which Mr. Alzado requests one of the TVs be turned around so he can see the game show. Meanwhile, an unidentified man wearing a cowboy hat explains that Mr. Alzado has been sentenced to death by electrocution because he raped and murdered 23 men, women, and children, though Mr. Alzado counters that the number should be 24. He is quickly electrocuted.

Unfortunately for the prison system, Mr. Alzado was not killed by the electrocution. He kills the priest, then strangles the executioner—who, in a surprise twist, is revealed to be Deborah Foreman.

Deborah Foreman wakes up next to her boyfriend, Clayton Rohner, terrified—the opening execution was a dream. Ms. Foreman scolds her boyfriend Steven because he works at a prison and collects newspaper clippings about the executed Mr. Alzado. Mr. Rohner asks her if she’s having another of her nightmares.

“They’re not my nightmares,” Ms. Foreman says, philosophically. “They’re you’re nightmares.”

“You’re having my nightmares?” he responds, confused. “It’s just research for the execution scene I have got to write,” he tells her, revealing he is a screenwriter.

“How about you write something funny? Write a love story.”

“It’s the 80s, Susan,” he quips, also philosophically. “Love isn’t funny.”

The film cuts to a prison, where Mr. Rohner’s film is being shot. A female convict runs through the prison while director Anthony Perkins sits on a camera crane with his cinematographer.

The film then cuts to a local diner, where a local news report is covering the arrival of a Hollywood film crew to shoot in the abandoned penitentiary. Interestingly, the news report spends a lot of time interviewing Mr. Rohner about his screenplay, which is based on research about the cause of the riot that closed the prison. “What caused the riot here was brutality, inhuman conditions, corruption. What went on at this prison was abominable.” As an afterthought, local newsman Chuck Henry tells his audience that one of Mr. Alzado’s victims was in fact the hostess of Wheelers and Dealers.

Meanwhile, Ms. Foreman and Mr. Rohner visit the prison, where we are introduced to various red herrings/potential victims/comic relief characters, including the not-all-there caretaker Russell and the goofy production assistant Tommy. Mr. Rohner, as the screenwriter, was responsible for picking up a special effects dummy (which might actually be a sex doll) that looks like the main actress in the movie.

In a suspenseful sequence, Ms. Foreman wanders through the empty prison and finds a doll hanging from a noose with her name on it. POV shots indicate that Ms. Foreman is being stalked.

In another part of the prison, the exceptionally (perhaps even artificially) tanned director Anthony Perkins, who appears capable of working only while seated on a crane, berates his actress, who is being manhandled by some guards and acts with little conviction. “You know, according to this, we are doing scene number 94 from Death House Dolls. I see no mention of the Marx Brothers, or Larry, Moe, and Curly!”

The scene ruined, the actress, Sharon Fox, blames the guards’ ineptitude on sexual frustration. “When was the last time you guys got laid?” she asks.

Cleverly, one of the guards retorts, “When was the last time you didn’t?”

Mr. Perkins quips, “Brilliant. We should be getting this on film.”

The scene is again interrupted when the prison’s former warden barges onto the set and yells at Mr. Rohner about what really happened at the prison (it is somewhat unclear whether the warden wants Death House Dolls to be more or less realistic concerning the murder that closed the prison). However, Mr. Rohner’s responsibility as dummy handler forestalls any more confrontation, so the screenwriter carries the dummy to the execution chamber, finding the special effects man, a goofy young man named Rewire. In another comedic scene, Mr. Rohner asks, “Rewire, do you have any idea what 2,000 volts will do to you?”

Rewire responds, “No, you got any pictures?” (It is unclear why the screenwriter needs to instruct the effects man about electricity; perhaps the two read the wrong lines in the script?)

Rewire finds a boot in the chamber, and Mr. Rohner quickly realizes it is the boot of the last prisoner executed, Lyle Alzado. Rewire quips, “You know, if we could find the other one, we’d have a pair.”

Rewire then explains the plot of the film in a way that is both metaphysical and chilling. “Maybe he’s like that guy in the Halloweens who keeps getting killed but Bobby Ewings’ wife keeps waking up so he doesn’t know if he’s dead or just dreaming. Maybe he’s like that.”

Also, Rewire listens to a pop song called “Kiss My Stinky White Ass.”

Elsewhere, the warden uses the bathroom and hears someone wheel an acetylene tank into the bathroom. The warden is quickly murdered by a flamethrower.

Back at the film shoot, Ms. Foreman, who is a stuntwoman on the film, arrives on set dressed like Sharon Fox. Her stunt is to jump from a third-story cell block onto an airbag. The stunt is performed perfectly.

Seconds later, the crew films the execution of the Sharon Fox dummy in the real electric chair in the real execution chamber. (It is unclear why the character jumped from a third-story cell block only to be executed; it is also unclear, for that matter, why two important stunts were scheduled back-to-back.) Just as he is about to flip the switch for the electrocution stunt, Rewire says, “Some people dream things and say, ‘Why not?’ I dream things and say…’Whoa. Where am I?’”

When the switch is flipped, the effect does not work correctly, and the dummy starts melting and catching on fire. Nobody is hurt, but the prison’s electrical system is fried, which coincidentally seals two doors automatically: one in the execution chamber and the main entrance. The crew is locked in the prison until someone can reset the power in the boiler room. Of course, Mr. Rohner and Ms. Foreman are volun-told to take on this dangerous job. They go to an industrial elevator leading down to the boiler room, and they are assured by Rewire through some dialogue I did not quite follow that the elevator will work even though the power to the penitentiary has been cut. Indeed, the elevator deposited them in the basement, where various lights flash on and off—the lights provided by highway flashers apparently constructed by prison inmates.

Surprisingly, Mr. Rohner falls down into what appears to be a stone sewer in 19th-century Paris. Ms. Foreman is surprised by Russell the janitor, and both of them work on pulling Mr. Rohner out of the rat-infested sewer. Once he climbs out with the aid of a fire hose, Russell explains, somewhat confusingly, that the sewer is called Moser’s Hole and it was built to keep Moster (Lyle Alzado’s character) in solitary confinement.

Once the power is restored, Mr. Rohner and Ms. Foreman leave the basement, while Russell closes a gate over Moser’s Hole. Shockingly, Russell sees the warden’s burnt body floating down below.

The film cuts to Mr. Rohner and Ms. Foreman making love in a private shower—an odd but pleasant interlude for a prison-set slasher movie.

Of course, the show must go on, so Anthony Perkins continues to attempt directing the actresses in his women in prison movie. Meanwhile, for unexplained reasons, Ms. Foreman handcuffs Mr. Rohner to the burnt dummy that was fried in the electric chair. (Though he drags the dummy with him out of the room, we never see the dummy attached to him again; also for unexplained reasons, Mr. Rohner wears a priest’s garb in this scene, but never again.)

Elsewhere, Russell leads a random police officer to Mr. Alzado, and Mr. Alzado skewers the officer with a jackhammer while Russell stands by, laughing maniacally.

Back at the execution chamber, Sharon Fox performs a scene in which her character dies in the electric chair. Her performance is made realistic by actually shocking her, a performance aid that was not revealed to her in advance. She screams that she quits the movie, then slaps Russell, of all people, and storms off the set.

Mr. Perkins simply calls, “All right, that’s lunch.”

Later, the crew go to a diner in town, and the waitress mistakes Ms. Foreman for Sharon Fox, despite Ms. Foreman looking nothing like Sharon without her stuntperson’s wig. When the waitress asks what movies she’s seen Sharon in, Mr. Rohner helpfully supplies some titles: Killer Cabbie, Motorcyle Sluts Go Logging, and Thirty-Foot Bride of Satan (to which an elderly woman in the diner perks up and says, “Satan?”).

At night, a drunk Sharon stumbles to the electric chair and speaks to her creepily deformed dummy. Russell is the only other person at the prison; presumably because Sharon slapped him randomly, he keys her car door. Fortunately for Russell’s plans for revenge, Sharon stumbles into the elevator to the basement, where she stumbles upon Mr. Alzado watching TV in Russell’s subterranean office. She screams and runs away, stumbling into Russell, who tries to kiss her but falls off a catwalk to the basement floor. Then Mr. Alzado lunges for Sharon.

Back at the movie set, Mr. Perkins sets up a shower scene, but when Sharon is nowhere to be found he wants to use Ms. Foreman. “The whole event of this scene is to show some skin,” he says confusingly. He tells Ms. Foreman to drop her clothes. “Fox has disappeared on me. We’ll only photograph you from the back.”

“You mean where my ass is?” Ms. Foreman quips.

“Hey,” Mr. Perkins says, “this is the eighties, doll. Check the trades. Nudity is required of everyone. Nicholson! Streep!”

“What would my mother say?”

They shoot the scene without Ms. Foreman. As the women fight nude in the shower, Mr. Alzado watches through a peephole, panting heavily. This sequence, while one of the most exploitative in the film, is also one of the cleverest comments on cinema-as-voyeurism ever filmed: Anthony Perkins (perhaps the cinema’s most famous peephole voyeur in Psycho) operates the film camera himself, jamming it toward the women’s bodies, while Lyle Alzado (playing a psycho killer) watches through his own peephole. (It is perhaps unfortunate that we as the audience see neither the camera’s POV nor Mr. Alzado’s POV during the sequence.)

At the same time, Ms. Foreman has one of her visions, in which she is chased through the prison after finding a jar stuffed with a bloody doll’s head. 

Back at the diner, Mr. Rohner remains to speak with the fry cook, the colorfully named Fingers, who worked at the prison at the time of the riot, and even threw the execution switch for Mr. Alzado’s character. Though Mr. Rohner’s curiosity about the case is still unclear (his script is for an exploitative women-in-prison film, not an expose of the reasons behind the riot), Fingers reveals that Mr. Alzado is “half alive” because the power went out while he was being executed, and he still lives in the prison. Then Fingers reveals one of the film’s most shocking twists: Russell is Mr. Alzado’s father! [Note: Spoiler]

Ms. Foreman runs through the prison and reaches the execution chamber, where Mr. Perkins is strapped into the electric chair. Ms. Foreman tries to save him but he is electrocuted and his eye pops out.

A policeman (actually, the murdered policeman) enters the room—but he transforms into Mr. Alzado in the policeman’s uniform. He laughs maniacally while Ms. Foreman runs back through the prison.

Mr. Rohner hails a taxi but the driver won’t drive to the old prison until Mr. Rohner bribes him with a crisp twenty-dollar bill, which the driver accepts, driving Mr. Rohner to the prison but driving away immediately after dropping off his fare. 

Inside the prison, Mr. Alzado straps Ms. Foreman into another electric chair in another execution chamber and, presaging the excesses of the “torture porn” genre popular a decade and a half later, fingers an assortment of sharp implements before shockingly cutting Ms. Foreman’s hair—and eating the hair.

The resourceful Ms. Foreman stabs Mr. Alzado with scissors and continues her preferred activity of running through the empty prison. Eventually, Mr. Alzado straps Ms. Foreman into the electric chair again while Mr. Rohner breaks into the prison by using explosives from one of the film crew’s rental trucks.

The film builds suspense (and pads time) expertly as Mr. Rohner stumbles upon some of the grotesqueries Ms. Foreman already discovered, such as a head in a photocopier, while Mr. Alzado taunts his victim in a tour de force of acting. “Why don’t they leave us alone?” he asks her. “It’s like the rats that crawl through the plumbing. Big beautiful rats. Sometimes you see their tracks and you know they’re just near your bed. I’m going to bring you a present.” He presses the electrode helmet on her head and leaves the chamber.

In the basement, Mr. Rohner, assisted by some classic late-eighties backlighting, finds Mr. Alzado and confronts him.

Of course, Mr. Rohner is no physical match for the possibly dead or half-dead Mr. Alzado, who knocks Mr. Rohner unconscious and then, possibly in effectively, tells him to keep his hands off Ms. Foreman, whom he has possibly mistaken for the game show hostess he killed years earlier (though he calls her by her actual character name).

Meanwhile, Ms. Foreman rigs an impromptu trap by connecting cables between the electric chair and a set of prison bars. The trap works immediately and Mr. Alzado is fried (again). 

Ms. Foreman finds the injured but now-conscious Mr. Rohner in the basement and guides him to their car, unaware that Mr. Alzado has opened his eyes. In a thrilling bit of stunt work reminiscent of the Maniac Cop films, Ms. Foreman drives the car through the prison garage with Mr. Alzado crouching on top, reaching through the roof to menace our two heroes.

In the climax, after Mr. Rohner has unsuccessfully attempted to assault Mr. Alzado with a motorcycle, Ms. Foreman is allowed to run through the prison one last time. Coincidentally, the Wheelers and Dealers game show is on the TV in Russell’s office. Unfortunately, Russell is nearby as well. He threatens Ms. Foreman with a blowtorch, which he immediately drops onto the floor, and then he and Ms. Foreman fall into the sewer. She hits Russell with a rock and Mr. Alzado pulls her out of the sewer, but she is able to use the blowtorch to set the serial killer on fire. He falls down the sewer and there is a massive explosion.

In the film’s coda, Ms. Foreman lies in a hospital bed when a grotesquely burnt Lyle Alzado approaches her, telling her he brought her a gift (apparently his own ear, which he stuffs into his mouth for unknown reasons).

Ms. Foreman wakes up. The attack was just a dream, and she is in Mr. Rohner’s hospital room. She kisses him and the film fades to black. 

Destroyer delivers on its promise at every turn, from the botched initial execution resulting in a (primarily offscreen) prison riot that closes down the prison to the gorgeously lit prison basement full of traffic safety blinkers to the brutal murder by jackhammer to the grisly execution of Anthony Perkins. Adding Clayton Rohner and Deborah Foreman only serves to make the film a near-perfect late-eighties slasher movie. The film even introduces a few hints of ambiguity for those who enjoy nuance, subtlety, and sophistication in their prison horror movies, raising but not answering such important questions as these: Is Lyle Alzado's character dead or not? Why is screenwriter Clayton Rohner researching the truth behind the prison riot/closure for a film called Death House Dolls? And whatever happened to Rewire, the true star of the film? Alas, as for many of these unrecognized classics, there was no sequel to Destroyer, so we could never learn the answers. Fortunately, Mr. Alzado would participate in several other cinematic classics such as Zapped Again (1990) and Neon City (1991) before his tragic death in 1992, ensuring that at least part of the legacy of Destroyer would live on for all time.