New Year's Evil (1980) [Blu-ray]

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2015-02-20 03:56

New Year’s Evil (1980)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: February 24th, 2015

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

The movie:

The stellar slasher class of 1981 is frequently—and perhaps rightfully—hailed as the genre’s most illustrious group, but I wonder if it’s unfairly cast an undue shadow on the previous year. 1980’s class isn’t as accomplished as a whole, but it’s retroactively just as exciting for different reasons. Where the 1981 bunch took the genre formula and codified it, its predecessors were still in the process of finding the formula in the first place. This group wasn’t just students—they were pioneers at the very edge of a frontier that had been staked out by the likes of Hitchcock, Argento, Bava, Carpenter, and other proto-slasher directors over the years.

With little room left to carve out, the class of ’80 found themselves poking around some strange territory at times. Maybe their output wasn’t always the strongest, but it was consistently interesting. New Year’s Evil is a fine representative that planted its flag on an open calendar date and explored just what a slasher movie could be outside of its familiar rural or suburban haunts.

Instead, this Cannon Films production finds itself right in the heart of Los Angeles on New Year’s Eve, where punk VJ Blaze Sullivan (Roz Kelly) is presiding over festivities in a swanky downtown hotel. The celebration is soon interrupted by what appears to be a prank caller by the name of evil who pledges to kill someone as each time zone movies into the new year. He quickly makes good on this threats, too, as the audience watches him rove about LA in search of unsuspecting victims, an odyssey that takes him from a sanitarium to a Van Nuys drive-in before he finally sets his sights on Blaze.

The decision to hover over a largely unmasked killer (Kip Niven does slip on a few Halloween masks at different points) is a curious departure from the formula most slashers had already quickly adopted. It’s a double-edged sword of an approach: without a group of victims to follow and empathize with, Evil’s fodder is especially faceless and forgettable since they only show up for a few minutes to wind up on the wrong end of a knife (or a bag of pot). On the other hand, it gives Niven the chance to have fun in creating a maniacal oddball. So many slashers obscure their villains behind masks or through crafty camerawork before maybe allowing them to flourish during their reveal.

Not so here, as Evil is obviously unhinged from the start as he effortlessly glides from one assumed persona to the next, sort of like a deranged take-off of Fletch (a concept that would sort of be revisited a couple of years later by Michael Ironside in Visiting Hours). Niven’s range takes him from a wannabe Lothario to a meek, mild-mannered priest in the span of 90 minutes; in between, he assumes the typical psycho position by tormenting Blaze on the phone with a highly affected vocal tic (it’s somewhere very south of the duck-voiced killer in New York Ripper).

The film’s structure also hides its twist in plain sight. By revealing the killer and following his exploits, viewers might not expect the climactic twist that really unleashes Niven and allows him to flex his psychotic muscles. While the script leans on some familiar subtext to explain his psychosis, Niven at least runs with it and allows it to trail behind him like a banner. Critics have pegged the genre as implicitly misogynistic, and here’s one that eventually makes that the text. Evil is another frustrated man-baby in a long line of gutless, woman-hating lunatics whose knife overcompensates for his fragile ego. By portraying him as a ridiculous, insecure man unable to cope with powerful women, New Year’s Evil attempts to eviscerate misogyny (though it must be noted that it only comes after it’s similarly eviscerated a handful of women).

If not for Niven’s fun turn and its twist, New Year’s Evil wouldn’t be cause for much celebration: as a slasher, it doesn’t quite embrace the gory potential many of its contemporaries tap into*, nor is it particularly suspenseful. Director Emmett Alston helms the film with a workmanlike efficiency, so it moves well enough and makes for a decent L.A. travelogue. There’s a grit and menace to the city that colors Evil’s deadly crosstown journey with a sinister vibe that’s miles away from the flashy, neon-lit New Wave interiors Kelly lounges in for much of the film.

This aesthetic clash is marked throughout: whenever we’re riding alongside Evil, the proceedings are moody, intense, and drab. Meanwhile, Blaze is the MC of party central alongside a punk band whose opening number doubles as the film’s theme song (a pity the film's energy never reaches the heights of this manic overture). Joining her is her weirdo son (Grant Cramer), whose peculiar tendencies (such as stretching his mom’s pantyhose over his head) make for some odd flourishes in a film that could use a few more of them.

Still, New Year’s Evil is a worthwhile curiosity. In hindsight, it’s either an early slasher that futzes with the genre template or a traditional thriller looking to capitalize on a burgeoning trend. Either way, it’s an outlier that resists being lumped in with many of the films that would follow during the next decade. By the time it hit theaters in December of 1980, one could argue that the likes of Prom Night and Friday the 13th had already set the mold, thus rendering it a bit anachronistic upon release. The 80s wouldn’t yield many more slashers like this one, and that counts for something.

*It’s almost ironic that one of the drive-in titles is Blood Feast, a far more gory film than New Year’s Evil

The disc:

For several years, New Year’s Evil was such an afterthought that it didn’t even arrive on DVD 2012 as part of MGM’s Limited Edition Collection, an oversight that left slasher aficionados scouring for old VHS copies or catching it on Netflix. Finally, a bit more proper edition arrives courtesy of Shout Factory, whose Blu-ray does obvious wonders for its presentation and adds a handful of extra features in addition to porting over the film’s trailer from the previous release.

The centerpiece is an audio commentary with Alston, and a 37-minute retrospective allows the rest of the cast and crew to discuss their involvement with the film. Nevin and cinematographer Thomas Ackerman are the obvious anchors, but Taaffe O’Connell (who features as an ill-fated nurse) and Cramer have some decent anecdotes as well. Each participant details both their own personal history before seguing into how they became involved with New Year’s Evil. All involved have a fondness for the film, particularly Nevin, who wears it as a badge of honor while noting that it’s a long way from Shakespeare (I guess he forgot that Evil does recite some lines from Hamlet, another odd touch that separates the film from other slashers). He also notes that it isn’t exactly Citizen Kane, which is correct. I don’t recall seeing Orson Welles.

As Scream’s release also features reversible cover art, just about the only thing wrong with it is timing: I’m sure most fans would have loved to have this a couple of months ago in order to properly celebrate. At least they’ll be able to ring in 2016 (and beyond) to the electric strains of “New Year’s Evil,” which also serves as the menu music. Maybe just crank that up to drown out Carson Daly or Macklemore or Taylor Swift or whoever hosts Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve.

Don’t drop the ball like Cannon Films did. In a better universe, they went on to produce a slasher for every damn month of the year after New Year's Evil and X-Ray. Imagine the amazing calendars that would have inspired.
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