Tuesday, 26 January 2016
Even with my somewhat arcane and eldritch knowledge of the more obscure back roads and byways of horror and exploitation cinema, the sheer number of movies produced over the last century or so means that there are always a number of films that have eluded my evil clutches, fallen through the cracks, that i just haven't got round to yet (but are on the - very long - list of Things To See), or that i simply haven't heard of or encountered before. This is especially true of films of the recent decade or two, as a lot of my time is spent focusing on the 'classic' periods of horror of 1925-ish to 1950 (the Universal Golden Age), 1955 to c. 1975 (the Hammer Horror Age, incorporating Roger Corman and others of the era) and then we have the 1980s and early '90s, the Video Age of the slasher movie sequel sagas, the Video Nasties, and my misspent youth when indulgent video shop staff would turn a blind eye and rent 18 rated movies to a morbid eight year old who eagerly enquired whether the latest Friday the 13th installment was better than The Toxic Avenger.
It's little wonder, then, that in this day and age when many - if not most - genre movies (especially the grubbier lower end of the budget spectrum films to which this blog is nominally dedicated) are straight to DVD and Blu-Ray, there are many that i come to with absolutely no foreknowledge or preconceived preconception whatsoever. One such bloodstained treasure is writer / director Maurice Deveraux' 2001 video opus Slashers, a Quebecois Canadian killer thriller.
Taking the format of a Japanese TV game show, the film uses the by now well-worn theme of the 'snuff game', wherein contestants take part in a real kill or be killed, hunter versus the hunted scenario for the delectation of the spectating audience. Familiar to most of the present audience through Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games and its cinematic adapted offspring (Gary Ross' The Hunger Games , and the Francis Lawrence helmed Catching Fire , Mockingjay Part 1  and Mockingjay, Part 2 ), but traceable back through seminal Eighties-tastic Stephen King penned Arnie Schwarzenegger vehicle The Running Man (Paul Michael Glaser, 1987) - which was the clear inspiration behind 1990 arcade and home computer game Smash TV - the basic plot stretches back as far as Richard Connell's 1924 story "The Hounds of Zaroff, which was first adapted as a motion picture as The Most Dangerous Game (Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1932) wherein Joel McCrea and Fay Wray were hunted through the jungle as human quarry for the sport of Leslie Banks' Zaroff. More recently, at the time of Slashers' conception, the real-life Japanese industry had given Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale (2000) to the unsuspecting world.
With more of a tongue-in-cheek sly and dark humour than Fukasaku's brutal realism, Deveraux presents the film as an episode of the eponymous game show complete with dancing cheerleaders, resident DJ, live studio audience and dancing cheerleaders, all presided over by host Miho Taguchi (Claudine Shiraishi) who begins with a fourth-wall address straight to camera (as we, the viewers of the movie, become the audience of the fictitious television programme) which switches from initial subtitles Japanese into English as she welcomes the show's new viewers in North America - a move which brings to mind Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. I (2003) in which Lucy Lui's character gives an in-universe diagetic explanation for utilising Western-friendly English dialogue.
The six members of the Anglophone public willing to bet their lives for the jackpot of "Twelve million American dollars!" are a combination of types: boxer and ex-marine Devon (Tony Curtis Blondell), computer programmer Michael (Kieran Keller), tough and sassy fitness instructor and 'Extreme Gladiator champion' Rebecca (Carolina Pla), nightclub doorman Rick (Jerry Sprio), legal student Megan (Sarah Joslyn Crowder) and model "and aspiring actress" Brenda (Sofia de Medeiros), who are to be pursued and hunted down to the last man or woman standing by the show's eponymous Slashers: Chainsaw Charlie (a dungaree-wearing "good old inbred Redneck" Southern hillbilly stereotype wielding the infamous Texas Massacre weapon of choice) and Preacherman (an extreme parody of a 'Fire and Brimstone' preacher who vows to slay all "sinners") are both portrayed in a rather impressive doubling-up by Neil Napier, whilst the ghoulish Dr Ripper ("the medic who's psychotic") is enacted by the surely pseudonymous Christopher Piggins.
The motley crew of contenders are accompanied into the arena / labyrinth of death by cameraman Hideo (Takaaki Honda) who provides occasional commentary as well as supplying the images of the film, which from this point in are almost entirely from the subjective point of view of Hideo's handheld camera. As a young fledgling film buff, i was always impressed with the opening prologue of John Carpenter's seminal 1978 horror opus Halloween, wherein Carpenter and director of photography Dean Cundey contrived the appearance of a single one-take uncut tracking perspective shot. Here, director and editor Devereaux and cinematographer Denis-Noel Mostert go much further by making the majority of the movie the feed from a single camera (although the edit points can quite easily spotted in the moments we pan past a dark background or the lighting flickers and we get a second of blackness, or in the whip-pans and sudden zooms, they are very neatly done).
The prospective survivors / winners and their characterisations and interactions play out like a bizarre cross between Vincenzo Natali's Cube (1997) - strangers with disparate personalities all together and struggling to outwit their deadly environment and survive - and a particularly perverse installment of Endemol's Big Brother. Megan has volunteered for the show to make a political protest against the programme and its packaging of human slaughter as entertainment, railing against the audience for "consenting to my execution, for giving your support to this show and its advertisers" in a moment quite reminiscent of Bing's excoriation of the TV judges and their passive audience in Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror: Fifteen Million Merits (2011). The reality television voyeurism is addressed by Brenda asking what her chances of survival are, and then immediately removing her top to spend the rest of her time topless aside from her bra (Brenda [re: her chances]: "Now?". Devon: "Better."), ignoring Rebecca's "Where's your self-respect?" in order to 'play the game' for her own survival.
The reality show gameplay reaches its simultaneous apotheosis and nadir when Megan and Michael find themselves in the 'Love Room' - a boudoir replete with heart-shaped bed, glitterball and cheesy muzak - and Michael insists that "If we have sex, we buy ourselves some no attack time... Sex is ratings!", and Megan's refusal (complete with trope reference: "Don't Slashers always kill those that screw?") leads to his sudden transformation from nerdy and slightly irritating geek to rapist ("They want this to happen! They won't stop me!"). The unleashing of his inner predator, and his rationalisation of his actions as "survival strategy", serves as much as a damning indictment of human nature and the extremes to which an individual may go in order to ensure their personal safety and achieve fame as it is a satirical critique of the kind of televisual entertainment that a passive audience will lap up without question.
Entertaining and interesting, Slashers is a neat little film that is more than just a low-budget gore movie with thrills, spills and kills, but also offers a wry commentary upon modern TV audiences and poses questions as to the extremes that entertainment can and will go in order to hold an audience and corporate sponsorship.