Monday, January 1, 2024

"Don’t Mess Up My Slam-Dunk Murder with Psychology" - Dead Above Ground (2002)

Our movie today is Dead Above Ground (2002), one of two slasher films written and produced by prolific television writer, and Jim Rockford creator, Stephen J. Cannell. Presumably impressed by the resurgence of the slasher film in the late 1990s, Mr. Cannell put together a modestly budgeted film depicting teen camaraderie, occult rituals, axe murders, and the bohemian Hollywood lifestyle that emerges as an entertaining classic.

Some of your universe's critics, however, are unkind to Dead Above Ground. For example, reviewer bombsaway814 writes, with questionable capitalization, "actually the movie is quite painful to watch at first. i finished it floored and amazed at the stupidity of it all." Reviewer dereth writes, "Positively one of the worst horror movies ever. Bad script, acting, music... you name it, they've got it." And reviewer Horrorible_Horror_Films writes, "Its really really stupid. Embarrassingly stupid movie."

Read on for the truth about Dead Above Ground...

The film begins in a glamorous fashion as limousines pull up to an auditorium as an announcer announces that we are watching the thirty-fifth annual All-American Motion Picture Awards ceremony. The announcer also says these awards are prestigious, though they specifically are not the Academy Awards or the Golden Globe Awards. Finally, the announcer announces that the best director award will soon be given out for an American motion picture (given the name of the awards show, clearly foreign films are not recognized). The filmmakers cut from the glamorous exterior of the awards ceremony to later in the evening, when director Mark Mallory, the winner of the director award, climbs out of a fancy convertible with his actress girlfriend Carrie to return to his mansion. Mark (played by special guest star Corbin Bernstein) tastefully suggests using the statuette for erotic purposes; speaking to the award, he says, “You are gonna take a flying carpet ride with Carrie.”

“You think I’m gonna let you use that as a dildo, buddy?”

When they reach the door of the mansion, they see that the door has been marked with a bloody circular symbol. (Also, the words DEAD ABOVE GROUND scrawled in blood flash on the screen, though it’s unclear whether these words are painted on the mansion or if this is simply a second presentation of the film’s title.)

Mark sends Carrie out to the car to call the police on the car phone, then investigates his mansion, picking up a sword to defend himself. After a great deal of time passes, and a bird supplies a jump scare traditionally performed by a car, Mark finds someone rocking in a creaking rocking chair. Mark slices the person’s head off, but it turns out to be just a mannequin (which Mark identifies as a stunt dummy). Then he is chased by a hooded figure with an axe.

Hiding in a room, Mark offers the assailant a part in a movie, but the would-be killer ignores the offer. Mark slams his sword through the door and draws the bloody blade back into the room, assuming he struck the killer, but it sadly turns out to be a gagged Carrie.

Running, Mark steps in a bear trap, drops his award, and is hacked by the axe.

The film cuts to months later, where a group of Bay City High School jocks and cheerleaders discusses an upcoming party at Monster’s house. Nearby, a goth young man named Jeffrey Lucas, who is also a filmmaker as well as the purported nephew of George Lucas, talks about his lifestyle with his girlfriend Zara. In some very realistic teenager dialogue, he expounds, “Two more years in this sinkhole? God. Sometimes all I want is to escape into the Celt world. Be with the dark gods. Malevolent entities never ask for photo ID.” He adds, indicating the jocks, “My movies are wasted on people like them. They will never get it, Zara. They don’t see the beauty in the ancient grimmeries.”

In a communications class, principal and teacher Carl Hatton (played by writer/producer Stephen J. Cannell) introduces himself and his syllabus for the summer class. Although this appears to be the first class session, Mr. Hatton starts by projecting the students’ summer video projects, which the students have already completed. He randomly chooses Jeffrey Lucas’s VHS tape, which Jeffrey indicates is not a documentary, per the assignment, but a path to higher learning. Scored with guitar-heavy rock music, Jeffrey’s film is a quick-cut scene of a satanic ritual which includes Jeffrey himself as the satanic priest transformed through editing into a bizarre clown. (This is the only clown imagery in Dead Above Ground.)

At the end of the short, a mannequin is beheaded, leading to a great deal of laughter among the students. Jeffrey, enraged, yells at his classmates: “Can’t you see the evil that’s in me?”

Two of the jocks grab Jeffrey and push him out of the auditorium while Jeffrey curses all of them to death. Watching him leave, Jeffrey’s girlfriend Zara says quietly, “You don’t see what he sees.”

Jeffrey’s punishment is to meet with the school’s new guidance counselor, the attractive Dr. Brenda Boone.  

The film cuts to Stephen J. Cannell’s pool party, which is for his summer students, though Brenda and football coach Tom are also in attendance. Oddly, Dr. Boone wears a revealing bikini to the pool party.

At the party, Jeffrey, who wears a black robe despite the other students’ beachwear, pushes a girl into the pool, causing her boyfriend, football player Dylan, to attack Jeffrey. The fight is broken up by Coach Tom and Jeffrey stomps away from the pool. This leads to a staple of Stephen J. Cannell’s work (and, I assume, of early-2000s slasher films) — an extended car chase.

Tragically, though perhaps not unexpectedly, the chase ends in Jeffrey’s car flying off a cliff and bursting into flame.

One year later, Mr. Cannell pulls into the school parking lot and immediately gets into a confrontation with Coach Tom, who has been fired and is living in his van, which he parks in the parking lot. Mr. Cannell threatens Tom with a handgun but does not shoot him, instead retreating to the principal’s office.

Meanwhile, the girls in class gossip about the new boy in school, Chip, who moved into the abandoned house where Jeffrey shot his satanist film — and who now seems to be dreaming about Jeffrey, as he tells Zara. Zara supplies some helpful information: “Jeff Lucas wasn’t his real name. Cops found out he was living with a lot of homeless people up in Hobo Canyon. Maybe he really was a Celt deity. Maybe he’ll come back like he promised.”

At night, a black-robed figure kills Tom in his van, attacking him with an axe.

The murder is investigated by Sergeant Antonio Sabato Jr., who thinks Mr. Cannell is the killer due to the fact that Coach Tom had a picture of Mr. Cannell in the van with him (a picture the killer did not remove). Brenda points out the illogical of the killer leaving identifying evidence behind, but Sgt. Sabato Jr. says, “Please, Doc, don’t mess up my slam-dunk murder with psychology.”

The police take Mr. Cannell in to the station to interrogate him, following the standard pattern of a slasher film. The principal explains to the police that he bought a handgun because he had been getting voice messages on his home phone whispering, “Dead above ground.” (This sounds quite chilling, though the film never allows the audience to hear such a message.)

Meanwhile, at Bay View High School, the teenagers arrange a seance to be held at Chip’s house to try to contact Jeffrey’s spirit. (They do not remind us that Jeffrey lived in Hobo Canyon and not the mansion where he filmed his student project.) One student says, “You want to go watch Chip vibe Jeffrey’s ashes in the afterlife?”

Her friend responds, “Cool. What are you gonna wear?”

The filmmakers cut to the creepy old mansion two minutes before midnight as the high school students prepare for the seance. Zara calls on the spirits to send a message to Jeffrey. Creepily, Chip looks up at the cobwebby ceiling and in a gravelly voice says, “Dead above ground.”

For unclear reasons, all the students pile into a wood-paneled car and drive to Stephen J. Cannell’s house, exhorting each other that they must warn him that a possibly possessed Chip said, “Dead above ground.” When they reach their principal’s house, however, they see blood on the front door. Nevertheless, they open the door and investigate. One of them sees the beheaded mannequin on the floor, and is then startled when she trips to see Mr. Cannell’s severed head lying nearby.

Sgt. Sabato Jr. investigates again, questioning Dylan and hypothesizing that each murder scene leads to the next victim: Coach Tom had a photo of Mr. Cannell at the murder scene, and at the scene of Mr. Cannell’s death, Dylan tells his circle of friends that the TV screen showed a picture of Kelly, Dylan’s girlfriend. Dylan continues, “The cops think the killer is using Jeff’s movie as some sort of blueprint for the murders.” (It must be noted that this theory is fascinating, though completely unsupported by any events presented to the audience, as neither victim so far had any connection to Jeffrey’s movie.)

Zara takes everything seriously, though her theory doesn’t quite match the detective’s. “His spirit is going to kill each of you one at a time unless we stop him.”

At this point, Zara develops a plan to save her friends’ lives, which uses their friend Darcy as a pivotal part. “It doesn’t do us any good to just talk to Jeffrey’s spirit. We have to have something to bargain with so he’ll agree to stop these killings.”

Darcy says, somewhat confusingly, “I’m not gonna be the vestal virgin. You can find someone else for that job.”

“But your dad is Reed Wilson,” explains Zara. “He’s a famous screenwriter. Maybe he can make Jeffrey’s dream come true…and get his movie into Sundance.”

Later, Sgt. Sabato Jr. strolls on the beach with Brenda, the guidance counselor as they recap the plot. She tells him about last year: “They screened Jeffrey Lucas’s movie and all the kids started laughing.”

Sgt. Sabato Jr. then voices the film’s most perfect line in a delivery style only this accomplished actor could. “I can’t imagine why. With all this strawberry syrup they should have been cooking some pancakes!”

The detective and the guidance counselor develop a plan to crack the case: Because Jeffrey was gripping a tennis trophy a year ago when he was hauled to the principal’s office after yelling at the screening of his film, they will now dust the trophy for prints to find out who Jeffrey Lucas really was.

Brenda says, “If you can follow me back to my office, I’ll give it to you right now.”

Smoothly, Sgt. Sabato Jr. says, “Well, Dr. Boone, I could follow you anywhere you want me to follow you to.”

(Later, Sgt. Sabato Jr. will charm Brenda with further smooth talk: “I couldn’t decide between police work or brain surgery, but I chose this because I love to eat at Taco Bell.” Of course, this line leads to a tasteful sex scene between the detective and the guidance counselor.)

Back at the mansion at midnight, Zara performs another ceremony with the goal of speaking to Jeffrey and offering to broker a movie deal. Jeffrey’s spirit does not appear, however, because, they reason, Jeffrey is distracted because Kelly is not at the mansion. Chip volunteers to drive to Kelly’s house to convince her to participate in the seance. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Kelly is attacked somewhat abstractly in her car by a robed figure.

Later, all the friends drive to Kelly’s house. They find Chip tied upside-down to the ceiling, and he tells them that a figure killed Kelly.

The next day, after various bits of dialogue reveal that a photo of Darcy was found in Kelly’s stomach, implying she will be the next victim, Dylan confronts Zara in the school library. He reveals he knows (somehow) that Zara flunked a polygraph test. She tells him, “Dirt is just matter in the wrong place and thought is mind in the wrong place. Therefore mind is matter and thought is dirt.” She also tells Dylan that tonight, the one-year anniversary of Jeffrey’s death, is when “the blood will flow.” As a result, she agrees to go see Detective Sabato Jr. Shockingly, Zara confesses to the detective that she committed three murders. However, she adds that she committed the murders in partnership with Dylan!

In a twist surely nobody could see coming, the hooded killer finds Dr. Brenda Boone in a convenience store, where he growls, “Dr. Boone, are you ready to rumble?”

“No,” she stammers.

“Oh yeah,” he replies.

He knocks her out and drags her past the murdered clerk.

In prison, where Dylan is being held, Sgt. Sabato Jr. helpfully wraps up several plot threads. Speaking to Dylan, he reveals that Jeffrey was really a teenage psychopath named Rick Mallory who killed his father (in the film’s opening sequence) and stole his money, then enrolled at Bay City High School to take a summer communications class taught by Stephen J. Cannell.

In another plot twist that might be described as convenient, the imprisoned Dylan calls his friend Monster and tells him to hack into the prison database to release Dylan from prison before midnight. Of course, this works, and everyone converges on the house where Jeffrey shot his film.

In the final twist, the killer is revealed to be Chip, who believes he is possessed by a demon and needs to perform a ceremony so he can “pass on.” He drags Darcy into the mansion, where he has already imprisoned Brenda. Then he removes the mask he was wearing, revealing the burnt face of Jeffrey himself. (Indeed, Chip was Jeffrey all along.)

Fortunately, the prison system works quickly and efficiency, so Dylan is able to drive to the mansion well before midnight. He fights with the deformed psychopath, ripping off one of the killer’s ears before retreating to the roof. In the final confrontation, Dylan throws Jeffrey off the roof. Jeffrey falls to the rocks below, which are conveniently studded with iron bars to impale the body.

In the happy ending, Dylan and Darcy are reunited. They kiss, and Darcy pays her boyfriend the ultimate compliment: “You’re such a Baldwin.”

Surprisingly, however, Jeffrey’s body disappears from the rocks at the bottom of the cliff. When Sgt. Sabato Jr. sees this, he says what we are all thinking: “Jesus. Not again.”

The End 

Much is notable about Dead Above Ground, including its status as Robert Conrad's final film and its status as the film with the highest-profile performance by Stephen J. Cannell. In addition to writing and producing Dead Above Ground, Mr. Cannell (who created Mr. Conrad's TV series Black Sheep Squadron) gives one of the film's best performances as the teacher/principal. Also notable is Mr. Cannell's penchant for setting this film in his own expansive universe, where the All-American Motion Picture Awards stand in for the Academy Awards and Bay City (also referenced in Mr. Cannell's TV shows The Rockford Files and Renegade) stands in for Los Angeles, or perhaps Malibu. Those nostalgic for Stephen J. Cannell shows like The Greatest American Hero, The A-Team, and dozens of others, will appreciate the settings of the Cannell-verse, though there are unfortunately no references to the California Stars baseball team, of which Mr. Cannell was fond. Above all, Dead Above Ground is a fusion of the high school-set slasher film and the sensibilities of a prolific TV producer (who also happened to be one of the best TV writers of the 1970s and 1980s), which makes it unique, highly entertaining, and a lost classic of the genre.