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Hipster Holy Grail: Blood Massacre (1991)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter.  It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Blood Massacre is a much better movie than I would have ever expected.  It's got the perfect pace to keep you engaged and enough self-awareness that I can actually call it "good" instead of "ironically enjoyable."  It's marred by poor lighting and a few overly-repetitive shots, but given the breezy run time and wealth of "what the hell, let's go for it" ideas, those are minor complaints.

My Rating: 4 / 5

An Introduction to Don Dohlember

I enjoyed having a David Heavener theme month this past November, but I'm a little disappointed that I didn't have time to get around to very many horror movies the month before that.  So to make up for it, I decided to do another theme month this December, this time centered around local indie horror director Don Dohler.

I'm not going to pretend to be an expert on the guy.  My expertise on him so far is based solely on his IMDb biography, plus the two films I've watched so far: Blood Massacre, this week's Holy Grail subject, and The Galaxy Invader, his best-known work.  (The Galaxy Invader technically meets my bullshit HHG qualifications, but since a Rifftrax exists for it, I've decided it's disqualified.  For now, anyway.  But go check it out - it's a lot of fun.)

Dohler was a fellow Marylander with a passion for low-budget filmmaking and a stable of loyal actors, among them George Stover, Richard Ruxton, and Anne Frith.  His movies are mostly in the science-fiction / horror genres and should be right up my alley.

By the time the month is over, I'll have watched basically all of his filmography with one or two exceptions.  Let's hope they're all as fun as Galaxy Invader.

The Plot Summary

The film opens with Charlie Rizzo (George Stover), apparently a drifter, going into a bar and ordering a drink.  He very promptly gets into a fight with the locals and is thrown out by a bouncer.  This pisses him off, so he sneaks up on them later that night for some revenge killing.  Then we get the opening credits, and none of this matters.

I'm not sure why this prologue even exists.  My best guess is that Dohler realized his movie was only 65 minutes when all was said and done and figured he needed something to pad it out.  The cut I watched was 73 minutes.  So... mission accomplished, I guess.

Anyway, we soon find out that Rizzo is part of a roving gang of thieves led by his best friend, Jimmy (James DiAngelo). Rizzo and Jimmy are apparently Vietnam War veterans and Rizzo saved Jimmy's life back in the day.  They have a reflective moment at one point to talk about the passage of time and the horror of war, which leads to a really great moment where Rizzo looks aside wistfully and goes, "God, how I miss it," followed by a hard cut to the next scene.

Blood Massacre has a lot of funny moments like this that clue you in to something much smarter beneath the surface.  The movie overall has a thin premise that's basically just an excuse for cheap gore effects and horror tropes, but the folks making it aren't incompetent.  It would be too reductive to call this a "so bad it's good" feature.  It's more like "so carefree it's good."

Anyway, I'm getting off track.  Jimmy's gang is rounded out by Pauly (Thomas Humes) and Monica (Lisa DeFuso), who is constantly arguing with Rizzo.  The gang wants to carry out their next big score, but there's some disagreement about when and where to strike.  So, they argue for awhile.  Then they reluctantly and tentatively settle on a nearby bank and head out.

Then we cut away from that to hang out at a farmhouse.  The Parker family, led by patriarch Howard (Richard Ruxton), owns a sizable manor in the countryside where they are renting out a room.  Sisters Liz (Robin London) and Chrissy (Grace Stahl) greet a new tenant and eagerly show her around the place while their mother, Frances (Anne Frith), cooks a stew.  Life is idyllic and pleasant.  Surely not the site of a blood massacre, no sir.

Welp, that's enough of the Parkers.  Back to the thieves.

They drive to the bank and find out it's in the middle of a strip mall.  There are no good exits, there's too many people, and nobody has properly cased the place.  This leads to another argument between them about whether they should still rob the bank or not.  The bickering seems to bore Rizzo, so he just announces suddenly that he's going to hit a nearby video store and heads on in.

Moments like this are why I really dig Rizzo's character.  You ever have one of those long, stupid arguments with your friends about where you're going to order dinner?  And then somebody just kinda goes, "Fuck y'all, I'm getting tacos," and then they start calling in the order before you have a chance to express the merits of Chinese?  You always think that person is kind of an asshole, but at the same time, it's nice to just get on with it.  Rizzo is that guy, but with psychopaths.

So, anyway, they rob the video store.  It mostly goes smoothly, but at the last minute, a clerk grabs a gun and tries to fight back, which leads to Rizzo killing her as the gang makes their getaway.  The owner of the store shoots at the car as they leave and hits the gas tank.  For the first time in movie history, this does not make the car blow up, but instead just empties out their gas tank.

The gang sputters out in an isolated country field where they count up their booty.  Turns out it was a measly $700.  This leads to yet another argument because nobody's too excited to be an accessory to murder for chump change.  But, whatever - Monica and Pauly decide it's time to quit bitching and hitch a ride out of town, so they go to a shady road to flag down another car.

As luck would have it, somebody comes by: one of the Parkers, naturally.  Liz Parker stops when she sees Monica on the side of the road and offers help, after which Pauly immediately holds up his gun and carjacks her.  The thieves all hop in and force Liz to take them back to her family's farmhouse.

Somewhere in here we also get introduced to Detective McGuire (Herb Otter Jr.), a cop who's investigating the video store robbery and seems to immediately figure out that Rizzo was behind it.  McGuire heads out to the countryside in hot pursuit and, through happenstance, learns that the Parkers live out in that area.

Things escalate quickly back at the farmhouse.  Jimmy takes charge of the situation, holding Howard and Liz captive in the foyer and then sending Rizzo and Pauly to sweep the house and round up Frances (the mom) and Chrissy (Liz's sister).  Eventually the gang has all of the Parkers held hostage in the living room while they figure out their next move.

This sequence has a few pretty funny interactions between the Parkers and the thieves.  You immediately get the sense that something's not quite right with the family.  Frances is practically oblivious to the gang and treats them like ruder-than-average house guests.  And virtually everything Howard says made me smile - at one point he gets really annoyed with the gang not because they are holding his daughters at gunpoint, but because they refuse to call him "Howard."  (Really?  The lack of first name informality is what gets you?  You couldn't even spite your kids to be called "Mr. Parker?")

Then things start to get weird.  Jimmy and Chrissy make goo-goo eyes at each other while Liz makes blatant sexual advances on both Rizzo and Pauly.  Howard and Frances don't seem to notice or care that their daughters are seducing / being seduced, not even when Liz loudly announces that she's going to go take a shower.  Rizzo follows Liz up to the bathroom to make sure she doesn't escape, and in the process spies on her while she puts on a show for him.

Then she starts making out with Rizzo.  Hard.  Like two dogs eating peanut butter.  They go to town on each other's mouths for a couple of minutes, and at this point, you really have to wonder why Rizzo isn't more suspicious.

Then it gets worse, because Liz takes out a knife and starts cutting herself while biting into Rizzo's neck.  Surprise!  She's into blood play!  And she didn't bother to warn you!  But that's cool, because Rizzo is still into it - even as they smudge blood all over their faces.  At this point, "dogs eating peanut butter" doesn't do it justice - they look like dogs in a competitive pizza-eating contest.

Their blood make-out sesh is interrupted when Detective McGuire knocks on the front door.  Howard goes out to speak to McGuire and send him away.  When Howard successfully allays suspicion and gets back inside, Jimmy re-assembles the troops and gets everybody back in the living room.  He demands the keys to Liz's car so they can get away.  Monica is left to guard the family while the rest of the gang steals a bunch of shit and takes it outside to load up the car.

But when they open the trunk... surprise!  There's a corpse inside!  They figure out from some paperwork here that Liz was being treated at a mental health facility, and the body in the trunk appears to be her doctor.  Somebody then muses, "That's weird... the rest of the family seems normal."  And that's when all three actors have this great moment where they nonverbally say, "Oh, right.  They're all whack-jobs, aren't they?"

They run back into the house to find it seemingly empty - no Monica, no Parkers.  They sweep the house and accidentally stumble onto a torture closet where that arbitrary tenant from way, way long ago is chained up.  They set her free, and she shouts "They're crazy!  They eat people!" while running out of the house.

Cue the blood massacre.

In very short order, the Parkers take out the gang - plus that arbitrary tenant - one by one.  Somewhere in the chaos, a gun is fired and McGuire hears it.  He doubles back on the house, but he's cornered in the forest and stabbed to death.

There's also a random cutaway gag here where we see Howard sitting in a crawlspace chewing on a prop arm.  Literally just biting it.  I don't know why, but I thought his was one of the funniest damn things I've ever seen.  I think maybe its how nonchalant he is about it, and how this little moment is just thrown into the middle of an otherwise played-straight blood massacre.  He has a couple of cannibal jokes with Liz, and then we get back to the murder.

Eventually, the only one left is Rizzo.  He escapes capture, then quietly sneaks back to a toolshed and starts grabbing shit.  He runs off to the woods and gets some rest.

The next morning, he uses the miscellaneous junk to craft some improvised weapons, including a couple of jury-rigged land mines and - most impressive of all - a home-made shotgun that fires circular saw blades.  So, like, in case the last ten minutes haven't held your attention, here's one of the most badass things you can come up with.

Rizzo waits until dusk and then heads back to the farmhouse to enact vengeance.  He shoots a couple of blades into Howard and takes him out, then sets up some of his mines outside and lays in wait.  Liz comes out of the house and steps past the first couple.  Rizzo keeps waiting, and we keep cutting back and forth between him and Liz's feet until - boom!

He sneaks up on the aftermath and looks down at Liz's charred, bloody body.  He seems almost mournful.  Then he gears up and starts off to get the rest of the Parkers... until Liz suddenly sits upright and leers at him creepily.

Then Howard's corpse suddenly scrambles back up onto its feet, too.

Rizzo understandably freaks out and runs back to the woods again as the zombie(?) Parkers chase him.  In his frenzy, he completely misses a trap that's been set, and he is suddenly snared by a rope and pulled up in the air, upside-down.  Liz and Howard shamble up to him, laughing, and mock him as he sways helplessly.

Then, as one last "why the hell not" moment, they rip their faces off to reveal that they're actually grotesque ghoulish monsters with pulsating heads disguised as country folk.  And then they kill Rizzo so they can eat him.

The next day, the Parkers have restored their human costumes to full glory and are sitting around enjoying their idle country life again.  A new tenant comes to rent a room, and they excitedly go to greet her.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

Let's start with the bad: the editing isn't altogether there.  This is one of those complaints I made all throughout November with David Heavener's work - Dohler has the same bad habit of dragging out certain moments for too long.

Suppose you have a cannibal redneck with a knife.  Suppose she has a victim tied up in front of her.  You start with a wide shot of her closing in, then you cut to a series of inserts and close-ups of the redneck's cruel grin, the knife stabbing the victim in the belly, and blood spraying on the ground.  The music swells.  Congrats, you've just filmed a murder scene.

But Dohler doesn't stop there.  He'll cut back to the redneck's grin again, then he'll show the knife again, then he'll show the blood splatter again... and then he'll go through the loop another time, but now he's got a random coverage shot of the moon or something.  And now he goes through it again.  And again.  And again.

The repetition goes through stages.  The first couple times you're like, "Huh, it's kind of sadistic the way we're focusing on this brutality."  Then you start thinking, "Ha, now it's starting to be kinda funny because you can see how cheap it is."  Then you start checking your watch and saying, "You going somewhere with this, Dohler?  I mean, the guy's not getting any deader, is he?"

Dohler is a much better director than Heavener in that these repetitive moments don't happen all throughout the movie - they're confined mainly to the murders.  (Heavener, by contrast, even manages to bungle scenes of a guy drinking a beer.)  In some ways, that almost makes the bad editing more noticeable - a murder is supposed to be a shocking moment that sticks with you, which makes Blood Massacre one of those horror movies where the build-up to a death is punchier than the death itself.  The difference is that most directors achieve that effect with subtle tension and a menacing tone.

My other big gripe is that too much of the film is just plain dark.  Maybe a quarter of the movie takes place outside at night, and there's very little lighting to help you through.  At least one scene - the dead meat cop's murder - is so badly lit that you simply cannot see what's happening.  Not that it's a difficult concept to follow, but still - you're supposed to watch movies, not deduce them.

Despite all that, I had a really good time with this movie.

I'm not sure where Dohler got his cast.  Some of these actors - at least those from his stable - were probably good friends who were on board with his antics.  Some were probably hired through a more-or-less traditional casting process.  But I have to assume that some were amateurs who heard they could be in a movie and said, "Hell, yeah!  That sounds fun!"  Considering the budget, I would guess most of them fall in that last category... except that they're actually good.

Not "spectacular" or "great," mind you.  Nobody's going to get an award.  But they're all convincing enough at what they need to do.  Nobody stumbles over their lines, nobody looks awkward.  Those who need to ham it up do so in fantastic fashion, and those who need to keel over and die are happy to drop dead.  Everybody seems relaxed and comfortable in contrast to most low-budget productions I've seen.

On top of that, the pacing is pretty good.  Sure, I complained about the editing in the murder scenes, but other than that, this movie moves.  There's very little down time, even though it takes a good half hour before the plot starts to get underway.  And when the second act push does kick in, it hits hard.  I actually set a timer on this - it takes a scant eight minutes for the gang to get wiped out after they discover the body in the Parkers' trunk.

I also love that there's a casual "ah, it's just a movie" undercurrent throughout.  It's not lazy or brainless - obviously they were doing their best and putting legit effort into the movie.  But at the end of the day, they knew exactly what kind of schlock they were making and they weren't taking it too seriously.  Low-budget efforts can go from "charming" to "irritating" really damn quick when the director thinks he's revolutionizing the business.

It all builds up to a terrifically infectious atmosphere.  This movie hooks you and pulls you in.  You feel like you're joining a party with a bunch of other horror fans instead of watching people try too hard.

I can absolutely see myself revisiting this in the future.  It's a great start to Dohlember and I can only hope that the rest of my picks for the month have this same kind of energy.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

This one should score pretty high - right off the bat, it gets 40 points for an obscurity bonus (only 120 ratings on IMDb as of today) and 30 points for my full recommendation bonus.

I'm also giving it a 10 point Don Dohler bonus and a 15 point "you've probably never heard of them" bonus for the cast.  Now, if you're keeping track, that's already 95 points, so it doesn't need much of a push to achieve maximum hipster cred.  Can it get there?

Well, it has surprise rubber costumes at the end, so... sure.  Let's go for it.  I'll give Blood Massacre 100 hipster cred out of a possible 100.

Where You Can Watch

Somebody with the account name "DonDohlerFilms," whom I assume to be a legitimate rep from Dohler's estate, put this and most of his other films on Youtube in full.  So you can legally watch it for free.