Catching Up With: Code Red Vol. 2 (slashers)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2017-06-21 05:36

It’s hard to believe Code Red is already a year into its second decade of existence. For whatever reason, it doesn’t seem like their inception (way back in 2006) was that long ago. At that time, they were the new, upstart kid on the block looking to dig into even deeper, more obscure depths than the era’s reigning labels, such as Anchor Bay and Shriek Show. One particularly excited group was slasher fans clamoring to see a horde of unreleased titles finally make their way to DVD, and Code Red has consistently obliged them for the past decade, releasing a slew of films ranging from underseen gems to long, semi-lost efforts that very few people even though to ask for. Say what you want about this label and its eccentricities, but they’re still out there trawling for the strangest dispatches from the slasher ranks and beyond. To gather a sense of their eclectic library, here’s a look at five wildly different efforts hovering somewhere in the general vicinity of the slasher provinces.

A Knife for the Ladies (1974)

Most noteworthy as a proto-slasher set in the Old West, A Knife for the Ladies certainly seems like it’d at least be a distinguished entry in the splatter canon. Few films have ever sought to meld this setting within the horror genre, much less slashers, so it’s always cool to see a variation. Less cool is that the slashing is pretty spare: an opening sequence featuring an unseen maniac slitting a hooker’s throat gives way to an eerie, ominous credits sequence that’ll convince you this is some kind of weirdly unseen gem. Things look even more promising when yet another murder sequence occurs shortly thereafter, a grisly scene that prompts the town authorities to seek out detective Burns (Jeff Cooper) to solve the mystery.

And it’s at this point that the film begins to swiftly botch its potential. A good stretch—I’ll be generous and peg it at just an hour—unfolds without any more grisliness aside from an instance of misguided vigilante justice that claims the life of an innocent suspect. In lieu of slashing, it boldly assumes viewers who settled into watching something titled A Knife for the Ladies would rather watch an especially screwy episode of some long lost Western television show. Town politics—particularly the way everyone’s gunning for the poor, beleaguered sheriff (Jack Elam)—play a larger role than the unseen slasher, who lays low during much of the detective work.

Sheriff Jarrod naturally doesn’t take a liking to Burns, either, whom he sees as an outsider trying to undercut his authority. The two form an odd pair (well, after they beat the hell out of each other because masculinity, bro) who eventually uncover a bizarre mystery involving one of the town’s rich families. A spooky graveyard scene finally returns the film to its horror trappings, ushering in a fairly wild climax that hoards a couple of decent surprises. Sometimes released in a truncated cut labelled Jack the Ripper Goes West, the film is mostly a drag until it spills all of its schlocky secrets. But then again, doesn’t that describe so many of these things?

Don’t Go in the Woods (1981)

As Code Red’s very first release, Don’t Go in the Woods served as an accurate harbinger of the company’s future output. A grungy, low-rent early cash-in on the slasher craze, it’s certainly not the very first title from this genre anyone would clamor for, but it’s also not the last. Code Red specializes in this little sweet spot, digging up these curiosities that hold some value but are largely overlooked outside of the niche cult crowd. It’s insane to think this once graced store shelves at Best Buy and Circuit City, as I’m sure many unsuspecting patrons were befuddled by his bizarrely plotted, dreadfully paced effort that seemingly promises typical teenage slasher nonsense before settling into a weird, protracted manhunt climax.

Even the first, more standard slasher half is a ruthless, breakneck variation on the theme. While the film follows one particular group of campers throughout, it’s constantly introducing other random hikers and campers with the express purpose of swiftly dispatching them. It’s the body count movie taken to a logical extreme, I suppose, and it delivers heaps of gore. Legitimately effective scenes involving sleeping bags and wheelchair victims would earn Jason Voorhees’s approval, even. It doesn’t lack for the usual splatter shenanigans, and even adds its own peculiar screwball humor into the mix at times, particularly whenever the local police force is involved. They’re the ones tasked with hunting down the psychotic mountain man (who looks kind of like Buck Flower on steroids) that terrorizes these thick, almost impenetrable woods.

In an interesting wrinkle, two survivors emerge from the main group and manage to make it to town right in the middle of the movie and alert the local authorities. Of course, true slasher movie non-logic demands that they return to those same woods against their better judgment for a ferocious showdown with the killer. Don’t Go in the Woods is a slipshod effort to be sure, but there’s something admirable about its messy, rugged take. If nothing else, it has one of the most realistic final confrontations with a killer, as I have to imagine it would go down much like this: with two unhinged survivors hacking the absolute shit out of a psychopath. Then again, the final shot of a baby emerging from the wreckage to brandish the killer’s hatchet is something that you’d only find within the gonzo confines of a slasher movie.

Lady Stay Dead (1981)

A nasty little Ozploitation number, Lady Stay Dead also isn’t a typical body count slasher. Rather, it almost feels like the Aussie answer to Maniac, as it hovers around the sad, unsettling life of Gordon Mason (Chard Hayward), a seemingly quiet, unassuming handyman who moonlights as a psychotic sex fiend. Polaroids affixed to the top his truck give a glimpse of his past exploits, while his current obsession with movie star Marie Coleby (Deborah Coulls) points towards his next conquest. When he takes a job working at her seaside mansion, it’s an opportunity to spy on her and live out his masturbatory fantasies (sometimes right there on the beach—eek); however, when his illusions are shattered by her snotty behavior, he snaps into a homicidal (and rapist—double eek) rage. Suddenly reduced to a quivering, apologetic heap, Gordon must go on the offensive when both a suspicious neighbor and Marie’s sister Jenny (Louise Howitt) arrive on the scene.

Most of the film involves Gordon stalking poor, unsuspecting Jenny, who has no clue her sister’s body is stuffed in the trunk of a car just outside. While the script does drag a couple of victims into the fray (including a goddamn dog—believe me when I say this one is ruthless) to pad out the body count, Lady Stay Dead is a cat-and-mouse thriller. Buoyed by Haward’s monstrous performance that has him constantly shifting between a delusional courter of Jenny’s affections and a completely unhinged madman, the film escalates with a sense of purpose, culminating with an outrageous display vehicular and fire stunts, making it a thoroughly nutty take from Down Under. As always, Australia’s film industry does little favor for its tourism, as even this idyllic seaside abode becomes a hellscape strewn with corpses and shattered lives.

Scream (1981)

This no-budget snooze-slasher is best remembered for a few reasons, none of them very inspiring. The first is that it shares its title with an obviously superior film, thus relegating it as forever being the other Scream*. Secondly, it’s a notoriously dry slasher where most of the killers occur off-screen, where the unseen killer lurks for the entire movie. And, finally, perhaps due to this second fact, it is completely fucking mystifying. Generally speaking, slashers are not the most complex creatures, yet Byron Quisenberry—whether by accident or design—was apparently bound and determined to make it so. This is the slasher reduced down to its most basic elements and then rendered into a hazy fugue: a group of hikers happens upon a ghost town near the Rio Grande, where they’re swiftly stalked by...something wielding various sharp implements.

It goes without saying that Scream is a terrible slasher movie. With the exception of a few quick shots of violence, you don’t see anything you want from this genre, especially one that has very little to compensate for that lack of gore. All this one has going for it is a distinctly sleepy, off-kilter atmosphere, which, again might not even be intentional considering it mostly arises because nothing happens. Quisenberry’s only direction to the actors seems to have been “wander around the set and improvise.” Occasionally, some interlopers—like a couple of dudes on dirtbikes and a mysterious cowboy—intrude on the proceedings, bringing with them hope that something—anything—might happen. Remarkably, it doesn’t, at least not really. Sure, people die, but for no clearly discernable reason.

Admittedly, it does leave some kind of impression—Scream is sort of the Waiting for Godot of slashers, and its creeping purgatorial vibe gives the impression that we may be watching a ghost story featuring a bunch of damned, trapped souls. Then again, you could probably watch this movie every day for the rest of your life, and it still wouldn’t make any more sense.

*It’s also known as The Outing, a title that can also be claimed by a superior movie, although just barely so.

Deadly Dreams (1988)

Another unconventional dispatch from Code Red, Deadly Dreams—like most of the films on this list—doesn’t strike you as the typical slash-and-stalk body count junk usually associated with the slasher genre. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, obviously, but one of the cool things about these Code Red releases is that you’re never quite sure what you’ll get. Sometimes, you turn up a dud like Scream; but sometimes you turn up something like this, an unsung little gem that opens with a family being murdered on Christmas night. Well, save for Alex (Mitchell Anderson), the lone survivor who’s still haunted by the slaying years later as a college student. Even now, he struggles to adjust, especially when he dreams of the psycho who murdered his entire family. Nobody is able to help him cope: not his new girlfriend (Juliette Cummins), not his best friend (Thom Babbes), not even his own older brother (Xandler Berkeley), who I suppose skipped that fateful Christmas gathering.

Things grow even more disturbing when Alex claims the killer—who sports a sinister fox mask—is still alive and out to finish the job. Despite that being a prime setup for the usual slasher action, don’t expect too much of that: in fact, the only gory outbursts during the first hour come in dream sequences that may or may not be foreshadowing the characters’ actual deaths. Still, don’t let that deter you since the final 20 minutes or so furiously carve out an unhinged resolution involving random cocaine addictions, betrayals, and one of the most elaborate gaslighting plots imaginable. An added bonus: seeing a completely different side of Cummins, one that’s far removed from her sweet, almost-final-girl act in Friday the 13th Part V.
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