If you’re a fan of trash cinema, particularly stuff with a gory, sleazy edge, you really owe it to yourself to make sure that you get El Rey network. Owned by Robert Rodriguez, it’s a love letter to grindhouse cinema; while the days are filled with 70’s TV, the nights are kung fu movies, Italian splatter, and 80’s slasher trash. And so, what better way to kick off October than with a pair of trashy, scummy horror movies I recorded from the network?
First up: Lucio Fulci’s 1980 film, City of the Living Dead. I’m a fan of Fulci, on the whole; sure, there’s no denying that his films are all about style and mood over substance, and that they often don’t make much sense. But when you have the mood and unsettling impact of films like Zombie or The Beyond (which ranks as one of my all-time favorite horror movie endings), it’s hard to complain too much. And City of the Living Dead holds true to that tradition, giving me a plot that’s only somewhat comprehensible – a priest in a small town commits suicide, which somehow has opened the gates of the city of the dead – but delivering a slew of unforgettable images and moments.
Even by Fulci standards, though, City of the Living Dead is a bit loose and nonsensical, culminating in a weird final image that really makes no sense whatsoever. The opened gates of Hell, as far as I can tell, mainly means that some people are coming back from the dead now and then, and murdering the living whenever they get a chance. They’re often accompanied by visions of the dead priest, who seems to have become some sort of unholy leader of the dead…but honestly, it never quite makes sense. And yet, that results in some beautiful, haunting images – the kind of thing that makes Fulci films worth watching. Blood streaked tears, glimpses of zombies that appear and disappear, a few really unsettling – and very gory deaths, that great psychedelic Italian horror music – it all comes together to create some great moments. And if it doesn’t really make sense, well, I’ll let a lot slide when the style is this good and effective. (Why this works for me and Argento often doesn’t is a question for the ages; maybe it’s that Fulci often goes full on surreal and nightmarish, while Argento’s grounded reality keeps him from the excesses that Fulci enjoys.) Rating: *** ½
Next up: 1978’s The Toolbox Murders, directed by Dennis Donnelly. The title pretty much tells you what you’re jumping into here, and the movie sure doesn’t waste much time, following around a ski-masked murderer as he wanders an apartment building with his toolbox and uses his tools as implements of violence. Kicking off with rampant gore and nudity, The Toolbox Murders sets its sleazy tone from the get-go, and doesn’t really back down from there, even once things slow down after that initial spree. “Random nudity + ironic 1970’s love ballad + brutal murder” is pretty much the name of the game for the first third of the film; after that, when the murderer decides to kidnap one of his victims instead of killing her, it becomes a variation on a revenge film, with the victim’s brother hunting down the killer to try to save his sister.
It’s all very low budget, of course, and gleefully grungy and sleazy, so how much you “enjoy” the film will vary pretty widely based off of your tastes. Taken in historical context, The Toolbox Murders is one of the first slashers – a predecessor and a forebear of Friday the 13th and its ilk. And so, in some ways, it’s a landmark in horror, I guess. None of that really makes it a “good” movie, though, nor does it detract from the heavy, heavy layer of sleaze that coats the whole thing. (The Toolbox Murders is the kind of movie that kind of leaves you feeling like you need a shower afterward, just to wash it all off.) Even with the standards of the genre, The Toolbox Murders wallows in its nudity and titillation, to the point where it’s not really a surprise to find that the feminist movements of the time had a serious problem with the film.
But really, more than the sleaze, the biggest problem with the movie just boils down to the fact that it’s pretty boring. It never really crosses the line into being bad, per se, but the craft is perfunctory at best, the murders are less scary and more bland, and the characters remarkably flat. (The big exceptions to all of this are the bizarre, disturbing conversations between the killer and his captive; they’re genuinely strange and unsettling, with the actor playing the killer allowing his character to be genuinely disturbed and off-kilter, while never playing it as overtly menacing; simultaneously, the actress playing the captive plays off of him, working with his madness in a way that she hopes will help her. They’re surprisingly effective and disturbing, and better than the movie around them; they’re unsettling, yes, but surprisingly empathetic and low-key.) In other words, it’s all your typical slasher film problems, complete with ludicrous last-act reveal/twist that’s more dumb than shocking. Yay? In some ways, it’s worth watching as a historical artifact of sorts, especially in the genre; apart from that, if you’re not into slashers, you probably won’t be swayed by this one. Rating: **