Monday, August 14, 2023

"This Is a Super Van!" - Blood Song (1982)

While various musical stars have turned in excellent performances in slasher films (in particular, Tiny Tim in Blood Harvest and Mickey Dolenz in The Night of the Strangler), one might say the finest of these performances was gifted to the world by Frankie Avalon in Blood Song (1982). Let us look in detail at Blood Song, one of the few theatrical films directed by prolific TV director Alan J. Levi.

Of course, some of your universe's critics are unnecessarily unkind to Blood Song. For example, reviewer Aaron1375 writes, "Just not all that entertaining." Reviewer Leofwine_draca calls the film "a cheesy, low budget slasher film of the early 1980s." And reviewer ceejayred writes, "BLOOD SONG is an average thriller at best."

Read on to find out why Blood Song is most definitely not an "average thriller at best"...

A Tennyson quote is superimposed on a black screen in haunting red type: “Thro’ cells of madness, haunts of horror and fear…” After the opening titles, we watch an airplane land in the middle of the night. In Portland, Oregon in 1955, a man is dropped off by a taxi. When he unlocks the front door of his house, we hear sounds of shock and then gunshots. The camera pans across a horrifying tableau: a dead man and woman lie in bed, and then their killer puts the gun barrel in his mouth and fires.

The traumatic scene is witnessed by a boy of about 10 years old. He looks at the carnage and then, as most boys would, he puts a homemade wooden flute to his mouth and starts playing a jaunty tune.

The film jumps forward to 1982. In a place called Stanford Bay, the camera pans across another bed to find a young woman lying with her eyes open. In an artistic maneuver, the camera closes in on her left eye, which dissolves to a different person’s eye and a green-tinged spiral as the young woman sees an event occurring elsewhere—she sees the corridor of a mental institution, where someone named Paulie plays a flute in the dark. Paulie suddenly kills an orderly and escapes the institution, all while being observed psychically by the young woman, Marion, played by Donna Wilkes (who would play Angel in the exploitation film Angel the next year).

In the morning, Marion, who walks with a leg brace, wakes up and eats breakfast with her bickering parents (played by Richard Jaeckel and Antoinette Bower). After school, Marion spends time with her boyfriend Joey, who works on a fishing boat. She tells him she had a nightmare about Paulie killing someone.

Later, as Marion walks home, she has a vision of a van trying to run her down, but she realizes it is not real. Then she has another vision, this one tinged orange instead of green, in which Frankie Avalon, playing Paulie, hitches a ride in a van on his way to San Francisco.

At dinner, Marion helpfully explains the family situation as she argues with her father: “Well, it was your fault, wasn’t it? I mean, if you hadn’t been so drunk and run into that car, I wouldn’t be a cripple now, would I?” She storms off to see Joey at the docks, eventually finding he isn’t there. She then has a helpful flashback in which she gets a blood transfusion from a patient at the state mental hospital.

When Joey arrives to find her, he says, “You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.”

“Kinda,” she replies eloquently.

When she tells him about her dreams, he dismisses her concerns. “Everybody has bad dreams.”

“Not like these. I keep seeing some lunatic killing people. I’m scared.”

He replies unhelpfully, “Look, all these dreams mean is that you’re going through a bad time right now. I understand, believe me.”

The next day, at school, the camera pans down past a bulletin board pinned with the somewhat alarming poster that says “LAND AND SLAVES FOR SALE” before finding Marion looking worried at her desk. She has another vision, this one tinged blue and yellow, in which Mr. Avalon plays Brahms’s Lullaby on his flute in the van. He tells the driver, “My daddy made this for me just before he died. Didn’t have enough time to teach me anything else.”

“Well, maybe you ought to get yourself another teacher,” says the driver. “Or I’ll throw that goddamn thing out the window.”

“You’re just like all the rest,” Mr. Avalon says flatly. “They tried to take it away from me too. But I got it back.”

When the driver pulls to the side of the road to urinate, Mr. Avalon rather brutally slams a hatchet into the man’s head.

The film cuts back to an anxious Marion in her classroom, where the bell interrupts her vision of Mr. Avalon committing murder.

The filmmakers next introduce the put-upon Sheriff in Marion’s town, who makes light of the reported escape from the mental institution because it is not in his jurisdiction. Hung over, the Sheriff lies down on the couch in his office and tells his deputy, “I don’t want to be disturbed unless World War III breaks out on Main Street.”

The film then cuts to Mr. Avalon driving the van, as the filmmakers abandon the conceit of seeing Mr. Avalon only through Marion’s eyes due, presumably, to the exigencies of the story. Mr. Avalon picks up a redheaded hitchhiker who is headed toward Stanford Bay.

“This is a super van,” the female hitchhiker says. “You’ve got an 8-Track! Do you mind if I play something?” She fiddles with the 8-Track player and finds his flute. “What’s that?”

“Don’t touch that!” Mr. Avalon yells, grabbing the flute.

The stories begin to come together as Marion and Joey socialize with some friends in a diner when the van pulls up to the gas station across the street. Marion, who has had her brace removed but needs to walk with a cane, gets in a car with her friends.  

At night, after she is tucked in creepily by her father, Marion has a purple-tinged vision in which Mr. Avalon has sex with the hitchhiker in the local motel. As he rolls off her, he says, “That was just the first surprise. I have something for you.” Subverting audience expectations, instead of killing her immediately, he gives her a cheap necklace. She tries it on as he plays his flute (not a euphemism). When she complains, he asks seriously, “Don’t you like my music?”

She quips, “Nothing personal, but not as much as you do.”

He grabs the necklace chain and strangles the young woman.

Marion wakes up screaming. When her parents step into her bedroom, she says, “He killed her! He’s trying to kill me too, I know it!” (This is the last time Marion will have a vision; the filmmakers drop this fascinating aspect of the story as this point.)

In a haunting montage, Marion walks along the beaches of her small Oregon town after sending Joey off on his fishing boat while Lainie Kazan sings a ballad called “All in Your Mind” with beautiful lyrics:

There’s a place you’ve never been
 And a face you’ve never seen
The vision is quite clear and you watch it disappear
All in your mind

There’s a song no one can hear
And a scream no one is near
Your dreams lets you see what you should never see
All in your mind
All in your mind
All in your mind

Pushing you all along
Wishing you were never gone
See what you find
In your mind
Hold on to what you can
Others won’t understand
That which you find
In your mind
All in your mind

Marion arrives at a campground in the woods, where she finds the van from her visions. She hears somebody digging. Perhaps unwisely, she rounds the corner of the van to see Mr. Avalon a few feet away, dressed all in denim and burying the hitchhiker’s body. Marion gasps and Mr. Avalon turns and sees her, gripping his hatchet!

“Hello, pretty girl,” he says, smiling.

Marion turns to run but stumbles and loses her cane. Laughing, Mr. Avalon chases her through the forest. (It must be noted that the electronic score and foley work in this chase, full of crunching leaves so crispy they appear to have come from an 8-bit video game, are excellent.) Marion finds a group of friends picnicking in a clearing. Fortunately for everybody except Mr. Avalon, all of her friends are carrying rifles for no apparent reason.

The filmmakers ratchet up the tension as Mr. Avalon’s van follows Marion’s friends’ car. When they drop her off, she looks out her window, but doesn’t see the van.

In perhaps the film’s most suspenseful scene, Mr. Avalon pulls into another gas station and asks the attendant where the local high school is located, as he is considering moving to town. When the attendant tells him, Mr. Avalon creepily stuffs some cash into the man’s breast pocket. At the same time, the Sheriff arrives and walks straight to Mr. Avalon. In what might or might not be sexual banter, the Sheriff tells Mr. Avalon he has been thinking of getting a van and asks, “Is there room for two in there?”

Mr. Avalon replies, “It gets kinda cozy.”

The Sheriff opens the door of the van to look inside, but he is distracted by the police radio in his car and doesn’t get the chance to investigate Mr. Avalon’s murder van.

At school the next day, Marion sees the van on the street outside. Although the van is gone when school ends, Marion hears some haunting musical notes as she walks home with her friend.

Later, Marion leads Joey to the spot in the woods where Mr. Avalon buried the hitchhiker. Joey starts digging but finds only a garbage bag. Marion is upset that her boyfriend won’t believe her, so she voices eloquently agitated poetry: “There was a VAN here, there was a MAN here, and there was a body here! Right there!”

At night, in a shot reminiscent of the grotesque Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (1981), the police find the hitchhiker’s head in a dumpster.

At Marion’s house, her drunk father confronts Marion, slapping her for spending time with Joey in his car. When her mother suggests they go to the PTA meeting, Marion’s father argues, “Screw the PTA meeting! I’m staying right here in this house” (needless to say, a sentiment many parents might agree with). He adds, “I know kids, and if we leave this house, that panting boyfriend of yours is gonna be back in here just like a shot.”

After Marion goes to her room, her mother scolds her father: “She’s your only daughter. Don’t you have any love left in you at all?”

In a bittersweet sequence, the filmmakers cut between Marion in her room listening to rock songs and her father sitting downstairs listening to country songs as the night progresses.

Late at night, the climax commences as Mr. Avalon breaks into the house and murders Marion’s father with his hatchet, bellowing, “You’re not my dad! My dad never hurt me!”

Marion runs out of the house. Mr. Avalon chases her to the timber mill where her father works. In the dark building, she hears Mr. Avalon playing a lullaby on his flute. “Your name is Marion, isn’t it?” he asks as she climbs a staircase. “They think you’re crazy.”

He corners her in a room, but she finds a sharp tool used to hook logs and she stabs him in the stomach.

“You hurt me,” Mr. Avalon sobs, incredulous. “You really hurt me.” He continues to chase her through the cavernous building, where some machinery is running and some is not. “You’re not being fair, Marion. Come on out and play. Come out, pretty girl.”

Marion hides inside a large pipe, and when Mr. Avalon finds her she stabs him and continues to run.

Meanwhile, perhaps in order to ease the tension, the filmmakers cut back to Marion’s house, where the Sheriff is investigating her father’s murder.

In the climax, Mr. Avalon drives a forklift toward Marion’s hiding place. He impales the only person working in the mill on the forklift’s forks, then screams “This is fun!” while driving the forklift around the mill. 

Perhaps unwisely, Marion hides on top of a palette of lumber, allowing Mr. Avalon to use the forklift to pick up the palette and deposit her conveniently in front of him. She jumps into the forklift’s cab while he is reversing, but she falls off. She can only watch as he drives the forklift through a wall, causing an electrical fire, and then the vehicle drives off a dock into the sea.

In the denouement, the police rescue Marion. She tells them she killed the man who killed her daddy. 

The damaged forklift is hauled out of the harbor, and a body is recovered from the sea as well: the sawmill employee’s body.

In the coda, a hitchhiking Mr. Avalon is picked up by a kind driver.

In another coda, Marion is strapped to a hospital bed and injected with a sedative. She has been admitted to the state hospital. A man wearing a doctor’s outfit enters her room. Shockingly, it is Mr. Avalon! He smiles at her and says, “Hello, Marion.” 

The highlight of Blood Song, of course, is Frankie Avalon's performance as the flute-obsessed killer. Mr. Avalon portrays Paulie's split personality well, delivering most of his lines with the smooth charm one would expect from the singer and beach movie star, then shifting into a chillingly flat affect when someone insults his flute playing. It is truly a performance for the ages, and it is unfortunate this is the last of Mr. Avalon's horror films (which include Michael Armstrong's Horror House in 1969), as he would have made an effective horror villain in future movies.

In addition to Mr. Avalon's performance, the film cleverly blends the minimalism of its main plot with the supernatural element of Marion's visions, caused by the transfusion of blood inexplicably donated by Mr. Avalon's institutionalized character. The film could have developed the visions further, perhaps explaining why a killer's blood would create a psychic connection with the blood recipient, or perhaps explaining why Marion sees not Mr. Avalon's point of view but a well-edited cinematic vision of events. In any case, the psychic visions are a fascinating element of the film before they are ignored halfway through the narrative. Similarly, Mr. Avalon's obsession with the flute his father made for him is another fascinating element before it is ignored soon before the climactic stalking sequence. One can only imagine how effective the sequel would have been if all these elements were again blended together, and if Mr. Avalon hadn't given up horror for Back to the Beach (1987).