Catching Up With: Code Red

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2016-10-20 00:56

In a cult home video landscape thatís crawling with labels who have carved out their niche, few have reserved an eccentric, idiosyncratic corner like Code Red has. Specializing almost exclusively in titles that are unfit for mass consumption, this truly cult label often operates on another plane of existence, as head honcho Bill Olsen scours the globe for obscure curiosities that probably shouldnít exist, much less with decent Blu-ray or DVD releases. Because of this, their output tends to have a hit-or-miss quality to them: youíre never sure if youíre about to witness your new favorite movie or a completely forgettable stinker, but, if Iím being honest, thatís part of the charm with Code Red. Call it a bit biased, but Iím never more excited than I am when Iím digging into this particular pile on my shelf because, chances are, Iím about to witness some kind of madness that has to be seen in order to be believed.

Necromancy (1972)

When I say Code Red sometimes digs up some real curiosities, this is exactly what Iím talking about. Just consider the logline, which boasts the presence of Orson Welles playing a necromancer masquerading as a toy maker in a small town. I mean, shit, do you even need to know any more than that? What if I told you he summons a young couple (Pamela Franklin & Michael Ontkean) to the town, drawing them into its hypnotic, Stepford vibes? Bizarre rules and visions of supposedly dead children abound in this hazy, warbling waking nightmare.

A film that thrives more on atmosphere than it does logic or coherence, Necromancy is a real-deal ďwhere in the hell did this come from ?!Ē dispatch that feels akin to a Twilight Zone cast-off. It operates under a suffocating dream logic, perhaps not unlike Dead of Night or Carnival of Souls; like those two films, Necromancy gives the impression of being caught in an inescapable loop of foreshadowing, flashbacks, and preternatural visions. Few films manage to feel so thick and heavy with a vague but undeniable menaceówith every frame comes the sense of spiraling further into some shadowy conspiracy. The eventual climax leaves no doubt: perched right in the heart of an unholy black massócomplete with incantations, goat masks, and ritual sacrifice--it takes on an unloosed, hallucinatory tone.

Necromancy is quite a trip courtesy of Bert I. Gordon, who trades in giant, monstrous animals for Welles conducting black rites, and the match is as impossibly weird as it might sound.

Night of a 1,000 Cats (1972)

In what may be serial bait-and-switch exploitation huckster Rene Cardonaís most notorious hour, Night of a 1,000 Cats does deliver just what the title promisesóbut just barely. While a bunch of over-excited felines do scratch and claw away in the bowels of a psychotic playboyís (Hugo Stiglitz, once again in the role of a beanpole sex magnet) castle, the film is more about said playboyís courting of unsuspecting women to his dungeon, where he shows off the preserved heads of his former victims. If that sounds like kind of a tedious drag, consider this: Hugoís vehicle of choice for these courtships is a fucking helicopter, which he flies around town in order to look down upon and spy on women. Occasionally, he even drops little trinkets for their children (Hugo is an equal-opportunity scumbag who doesnít let a little thing like marriage get in the way); at one point, he straight up abducts a child, seemingly in an effort to get her mom to go to bed with him (non-shocking spoiler: it works because why the hell not?).

Iím not exaggerating when I say that at least half of Night of a 1,000 Cats is dedicated to shots of Hugo Stiglitz piloting a helicopter, so itís no surprise that no real narrative ever emerges. The closest thing is his repeated overtures towards the aforementioned married women, who becomes ďthe one who got awayĒ in more ways than one when she manages to sneak away from his mansion on their first encounter. Otherwise, itís a series of loose vignettes that typically end with Stiglitz turning someone into cat food, coherence be damned. One might argue that chopping down 30 minutes off of the original run-time might be a factor, but, apparently, the excised material is somehow just more footage of Stiglitz piloting that goddamn helicopter. Besides, the hour-long runtime is the only thing even keeping this remotely tolerable. Cheers to Code Red for recognizing that.

Messiah of Evil (1972)

And when I say Code Red sometimes digs up legitimate, unsung treasures, look no further than Messiah of Evil, a title that had languished in public domain hell for years until the label produced a respectable DVD (and later Blu-ray). Bowing the same year that Willard Hyuck and Gloria Katz rose to prominence for their screenwriting duties on American Graffiti, this sleepy but unsettling encounter with the undead is perhaps the last thing youíd expect from a duo whose other credits include the likes of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Howard the Duck. While plenty of filmmakers have a horror credit or two rattling around early in their careers before all but abandoning the genre, Iím not sure how many can boast something as terrific as this little freak-out. Set in a California coast town, it involves a young woman (Marianna Hill) investigating her fatherís disappearance, only to stumble onto a sinister plot thatís slowly gripped the town and turned its citizens into a mindless, ravenous horde.

Unfolding with more of a pod people feel, itís one of the first noteworthy zombie movie riffs, complete with flesh-eating ghouls that descend upon victims in quaint, Americana locales, like grocery stores and movie theaters. It is decidedly unlike just about any zombie film, as a brooding mystery surrounding a century-old Man in Black provides some semblance of an explanation for its otherwise inexplicable events. Shadowy figures press against window panes to form an indelible image perfectly reflecting the filmís elusive, dreamy tone. Messiah of Evil makes the short list of thoroughly American 70s regional horror that could easily be mistaken as a product of the feverish Euro-horror circuit.

Trapped (1982)

One of the more unsung genre directors of all-time, William Fruet had a hell of a run that included the likes of Death Weekend, Funeral Home, Spasms, and Killer Party. Sandwiched in the middle of this wonderful Canuxplotiation gauntlet was Trapped, a hayseed bit of hack-and-slash situated in the wilderness of eastern Tennessee. Shot almost on location in Georgia (and not even close to location whenever it also filmed in Ontario, apparently), it tunnels deep into the backwoods of fictional Baker County, where a group of backwards, insular hill folk have formed a community thatísÖwell, letís just say theyíre resistant to outsiders.

Sort of like a grimmer, realistic precursor to Wrong Turn, Trapped is less a straight up slasher and more of a suspense-thriller. With the exception of a bit where a townsman is tarred-and-feathered for having relations with the community leaderís (Henry Silva) adulterous wife, the film focuses on the ordeal endured by a group of college kids that witness this inbred kangaroo court. When the local sheriff shows no interest in actually investigating the murder they witness, they (stupidly) return to the scene of the crime and find themselves in a fight for their own lives. What the film lacks in action (until the final twenty minutes or so), it makes up for with an authentically creepy backwoods locale and Silvaís unhinged, scenery-chomping performance.

As someone who knows a thing or two about the sticks, let me assure you that Trapped is among the absolute eeriest in terms of pure atmosphere and rustic mise-en-scene. Itís almost quite possibly the only slasher movie where a dude is impaled by a television antenna, a fate that might not be as unbelievable as the fact that these backwater hillbillies even have TV in the first place.

Shakma (1989)

Easily the gold standard of killer baboon movies, Shakma also boasts the nerdiest imaginable setup for one: a group of med students and their mentor (Roddy McDowall!) gather after hours at a lab facility to stage an elaborate role-playing game, complete with spells, riddles, keysóyou know, the whole dorky shebang. Unbeknownst to any of them, a ravenous baboon that was supposed to be put down definitely was not put down all the way, and now itís out to wreck their shit. And does it ever wreck itóthis is a nasty, messy, gory little nature-run-amok movie. Itís also mean-spirited as hell: just when you think youíve pegged who the sure survivors will be (no way that baboon puts its claws on main love interest Amanda Wyss, right?), Shakma sets out to dispatching everything in sight.

As ridiculous and trashy as this all sounds, Iím pretty convinced that this is probably the best Shakma could possibly beówhich is to say, itís not bad. For one thing, the actual baboon itself is terrifying, and I feel like anyone in the same room with it probably risked their lives for this deranged movie. In any other movie, a baboon giving the most effective performance would be damning; here, itís exactly what you want from a movie that doesnít hesitate to slather on blood and guts whenever things start to slack. Thankfully, thatís not too often, outside of a bit of a dry spell as the game is setup. From that point on, however, this oneís a pretty ruthless movie, right down to a wild climax and a silly closing shot. Never has a plush animal doll seemed so inappropriate.
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