Written by: Tim Ritter (screenplay), Joe Preuth (co-story)
Directed by: Tim Ritter
Starring: Cathy O'Hanlon, Patrick Foster and Todd Nolf
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
The Reaper is coming. Pray he kills you first!
Most of us have embarrassing relics from high school, whether it be some sort of project or hideous yearbook photos, but Tim Ritter has something more incredible in Day of the Reaper, the Super 8 film that he and his buddies strung together during a summer vacation. I bet nobody had a more interesting ďWhat I Did Over Summer BreakĒ report that year. Remember when J.J. Abrams made Super 8 last year? Yeah, this was sort of like that, only instead of scraping up some lame alien movie, Ritter and company had a crazy motherfucker butchering people down in rural Florida.
The crazy guy is known simply as The Reaper (Todd Nolf), and heís introduced during the transfer to his execution, where he breaks out, kills the poor bastards in charge, and heads back to town to finish a bloodbath (sound familiar?). A year ago, he terrorized poor Jennifer (Cathy OíHanlon) after putting all of her friends in body bags, and sheís been spooked ever since. While she unwittingly waits for The Reaper to return and add her to his body count, she takes a nap thatís haunted by the memories of the previous year, so the film flashes back to her fever dreamy recollection of the events that left her friends hacked, slashed, and gutted.
Day of the Reaper proves that itís difficult to stop someone if they really, truly want to make a movie. One of the most admirably shoestring efforts Iíve ever seen, it's somewhere below a proper student film, but Ritter shows the passion, desire, and ingenuity that would allow him eventually blossom onto one of the auteurs of homemade, shot-on-video horror later in the decade. What the film lacks in pretty much every conceivable technical department, it makes up for with enthusiasm. Like a lot of films of its ilk, itís not good in the traditional sense, but it is pretty honest, and, letís be real: any 80s splatter kid with Ritterís initiative and resources would have churned out something like Day of the Reaper. Itís unabashedly violent and only truly impressive in its deployment of gore effects, which is pretty much a microcosm of where the genre was headed at this point anyway. The only difference is that Ritter basically had an excuse since he was only sixteen years old when he stepped behind the camera.
As such, the film is predictably derivative; one only has to witness the opening creditsí slow zoom towards a skull to figure out that Halloween is an obvious reference point. Ritter obviously cribs a bit from that filmís structure, but, as it unfolds, it becomes pretty clear that this is Halloween by way of Blood Feast (especially once The Reaper is revealed to be a cannibal before donning some Phantom Killer-meets-lucha-libre digs). Obviously, Ritter (at this point and later in his career) had more Herschel Gordon Lewis in him than he did John Carpenter, right down the hayseed regionalism. If HGL was the Godfather of Gore, then I guess Ritter appointed himself as the heir apparent here since he crafted a movie that seemingly exists as a pure gore showcase but somehow works beyond that. Just as HGL fashioned films that were charming despite themselves, Ritterís Day of the Reaper is compulsively watchable even when the impressive gore effects arenít on display.
Make no mistake: this is AV-club level stuff, and itís made all the more bizarre because Ritterís high school buddies are often playing ďadultĒ characters (I died when some punk kid playing a real estate agent bragged about the hotel he recently bought). Itís a strange experience, especially since Ritter had to post-dub the entire thing; because of this, Day of the Reaper often plays out as a Super 8 silent film, with Sean Ruddyís Casio score pummeling your brain into oblivion as he often riffs on the same leitmotifs. I almost wish the dialogue didnít break through to interrupt, not so much because itís often insipid, rambling stuff (save for a few brilliant moments), but because Day of the Reaper is about as close as weíll ever get to a silent 80s splatter film. Long stretches play out like a slasher stripped to its barest, primal elements (read: gore), with the plot seeming more optional as ever as the filmís story doesnít even come into focus until Jenniferís voiceover monologue. It doesnít help (or maybe it does) that The Reaperís ďjailbreakĒ just looks like he escapes from a joyride with a couple of high school kids, so figuring out just whatís going on at first.
Most of the film is actually a giant, fevered flashback, so the nightmarish style is mostly befitting. I doubt it was all that intentional, especially since the film feels detached and weird even when it returns to the present day after Jennifer wakes up, only to find herself stalked by The Reaper once again. Itís at this point that Ritter goes a little off the board; while this segment starts as a standard issue chase through the woods, it climaxes with a bizarre deus ex machina introduced by Doctor Bloch (Patrick Foster). An obvious Psycho homage in more ways than one, this character wanders in and delivers a psychobabble spiel that soon gives way to some off-the-wall mysticism that opens the door for an outrageous method of dispatching The Reaper (that a character named Argento is introduced at the 11th hour is either appropriate or a great joke). Day of the Reaper is thoroughly bonkers and full of typical, perhaps unintentional bad movie absurdities, such as the charactersí non-human behavior: Jennifer is the most nonplussed Final Girl ever as she casually strolls to her nearest payphone to announce the Reaperís return, while her friends seek to get over their friendsí deaths by going to the beach and getting their hair done.
The gore is also fairly rad, of course; most of it is supremely crude and focuses on the aftermath of The Reaperís carnage, but a few sequences stand out, particularly one that reduces a guy to a pile of blood of guts in a bathtub. Ritterís grand guignol sensibilities are on display early and often, and itís no surprise that a teenager figured out what video store urchins wanted to see from their no-budget horror flicks. Thatís where Day of the Reaper eventually ended up, as it was eventually distributed to local video stores, where it went on to become popular. Even as Ritter gained more infamy with his later efforts, this debut understandably remained obscure; however, itís not as though the director is exactly ashamed of it, as heís recently allowed Sub Rosa to issue a premium collectorís edition. Housed in a vintage VHS box sporting incredible artwork that would have helped it leap off of video store shelves, the release features both a DVD and tape along with a keepsake featuring Ritterís autograph. I doubt the film ever looked and sounded all that incredible, and this presentation is understandably roughshod, but I also assume that enthusiasts wouldnít have it any other way. It probably goes without saying that only those folks need to apply, but any recommendation is kind of moot anyway since Sub Rosa limited this to 50 copies (talk about knowing your audience). If you count yourself among this brood, you probably snapped this up as soon as it was announced and treated yourself to a cool little prelude to Ritterís career specifically and the homespun slasher craze generally. Buy it!
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