Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Rumour Mill

When you’ve seen the best offings a genre has in store for you, and you start to scrape the bottom of the rumour barrel, you’re gonna be confronted by a lot of weird stuff. Of lasher films, were-thing movies, and kaiju-eiga, this is true; of zombie films, this is an undeniable, inevitable truth. I’ve seen a lot of zombie movies (a LOT!) and they’re all weird by definition, so when you get to the little ones, the forgotten ones, the weirdness gets honed somehow. Why for example do the zombies in The Garden of the Dead begin to dance around as if possessed by some unheard music? Why does everyone act corrupt and sexually violent in Revenge of the Living Dead Girls? Why do we get introduced to half of the plot elements we do in Fear No Evil? Fear No Evil is a weird little film if ever there was one. I liked it for the most part, because it manages to be a lot of things in its limited powers. It manages to seem like a male version of Carrie, a teenage Rosemary’s Baby, an Omen film situated between parts 2 and 3, an Exorcist remake that stays true to that film’s cinema-verite feel and a war-free Deathdream all in one. In fact it feels like a 70s Satan film, and if I didn’t know better I’d guess that it was, but it was made in 1981. One thing it never really gets around to being, however, is scary.

Fear No Evil
by Frank Laloggia

Open on a priest about to do battle with Lucifer; he’s an earthly incarnation of the archangel Rafael and he’s missing his two other archangels; Mikhail is his real-life sister Margeret, is ill and can’t be with him; Gabrielle, he says, hasn’t yet found an earthly form (not born yet). So he chases a rather spooky looking white guy with fangs around a pretty spooky castle set and then impales him with a big not-quite-cross. Lucifer seems undaunted and tells him he’ll be reborn. The change of setting to a Long Island suburb tells us he’s right, as Mr. and Mrs. Wilson are just about to have their boy Andrew christened (Don’t ask me why these two 60 years olds are having children, they just are). At the christening, things go south when little Andrew starts squirting blood in that special way we can only call Stigmata and his mom rushes him out. Over the next 18 years, Andrew will drive his parents apart; he’ll also make his mother thoroughly crazy, and make his dad into a bitter drunk who resents him. His dad tries to mask his contempt, but when his mother collapses in hysterics on Andrew’s 18th birthday and then an iron falls on his wife’s head, he rightly blames the boy; no one’s dead mind you, but I imagine this sort of thing probably happens all the time.

We then move back to our priest; he’s fallen on hard times. He was convicted of murdering the gentleman from the beginning, but Margaret is adamant that he’s innocent as the man in question was no man at all, but the beast! Her only other friend, another priest, blames her for egging him on and getting him into a Christ-fueled mania in which he committed the murder. He’s gonna be important a little later, kinda, so don’t forget about him just yet. Andrew’s dad comes by Margaret’s house one day and they trade naïve and cryptic messages of hope and then go their separate ways.
At school Andrew doesn’t have it any easier; his classmates ostracize him in very weird ways (including kissing him in the shower room to try and…turn him on and prove he’s gay, maybe? I honestly don’t know, but the kid who does it goes into shock due to Andrew's voodoo magic and can’t explain why. Understandably he tells everyone to not bring it up later, but what the hell were you thinking was gonna happen when you French kiss a guy in the shower room? You think it wasn’t gonna be awkward?). He makes Julie, a girl next door type, nervous because she keeps having sexual nightmares about him. Tony, the John Travolta character, tries to get a rise out of him by pointing out he doesn’t do drugs or drink and his cronies fall right in line with him. It isn’t until one day during gym class that Andrew figures out how he might make these kids pay. When he shows up late for class, the way-to-into-it gym teacher puts him in the corner to do push ups while the other boys play dodge ball. While he shouts and gets all lathered up at the sideline, Andrew gets worked up into a demonic frenzy and forces the gym teacher to take one of the balls and throw it so hard at Julie’s boyfriend that he kills him (a first in any horror film if I’m not mistaken). Afterwards Andrew falls into another sort of shock period like after he kissed that guy in the showers; clearly this kind if power is causing him a good amount of stress.

I was beginning to wonder what direction we were headed in until Julie has a dream about the priest from the prologue in the wake of one of her sexual Andrew dreams (Andrew has by now given her Rosemary’s Baby-like coital scratches). The priest leads her to an old woman named Margaret (ha! Now we’re getting somewhere). She seeks out Margaret the next day and it becomes clear that they are destined to come together and defeat the beast! Andrew has by this time been cutting his satanic fangs on neighborhood animals (like Andy in Deathdream), building himself a sort of alter in the family barn not unlike the one from the spooky castle at the beginning. Ok, so we switch over to Margaret’s friend the priest. Apropos of nothing we learn this guy puts on a Passion play on a beach right across the water from (drum roll please!) that spooky old castle. Margaret tries to coax him into nixing the whole thing, but he shall not be moved by this crazy woman and her prophecies. And as if all that weren’t enough in the high stakes game of Satan bating, Tony and his pals decide to steal a boat so they can fornicate in the shadows of…that spooky old castle. When Andrew and his dead animals show up there it almost seems like he just went because everyone else was doing it. He raises an army of the undead, causes everyone in attendance of the passion play to go into simultaneous stigmata and strikes the actor playing Jesus with a bolt of lightning. The battle between Julie, Margaret and the prince of darkness that ensues is kinda lame in comparison to the journey getting there.
I spent so long looking for Fear No Evil that by the time I found it I wasn’t even sure there were zombies in it. In searching for zombie films, you run into a lot of dead ends and rumours, as noted above. For example, read descriptions of Jesus Franco’s The Devil Came From Akasava: I had it on pretty good authority there were zombies in this film. There was a bonkers Spy plot and a very gorgeous, very naked Soledad Miranda in one of her last film roles, but there were no Zombies. I got very close to giving up hope that Fear No Evil had any zombies to offer me. They did eventually show up but they didn’t do much. They kill Tony’s friends and then disappear; they felt like an 11th hour addition just to drive home Andrew’s evilness. Most of the stuff in this film just kinda disappears. Andrew’s dad gets drunk toward the end of the film because he somehow figures out his son is the anti-Christ, a lesson we never see him learn firsthand. Then he kills his wife, who is inexplicably coated in cobwebs and then disappears. We never see what happens to Margaret’s Passion play staging priest friend. We never see what the fits that Andrew keeps going into mean. We don’t know why Julie was chosen as the vessel of holiness that must combat evil or why she dreams of Andrew or why the dreams stop after she meets Margaret. Too many loose ends. It’s a film that derives its energy from stolen setpieces. Like Carrie and Damian, Andrew has a hard time at school and doesn’t fit in. Like Reagan McNeal, Andrew’s eyes turn yellow whenever he goes into a satanic fit and he is double teamed by a pair of ad hoc exorcists. Like the devil to Rosemary, Andrew scratches Julie’s back in a sex dream. Like Andy in Deathdream, Andrew stalks about, kills dogs, drinks blood, and looks very dour. And like The Shining a lot of unexplainable sinister stuff explodes during the climax; except in that film it meant something. Frank Laloggia was too busy stealing from other movies to let his film develop a personality and so it is simply weird.

A good deal of that weirdness has to do with the film’s truly crooked sense of humour. Take for example the really long build up to the joke about Tony’s chest at the end of the film. Somewhere in the middle of the film, Tony offers Andrew some weed and then to point out how green the pale devilchild is he tells him that it won’t make him grow breasts like some people say it does. Later when all the apocalyptic weirdness takes place, Tony looks at himself in a mirror and unbuttons his shirt to reveal a pair of breasts. How are we supposed to take the scene where the actor playing Jesus arrives in casual dress and a prop thorn of crowns and all the children nearby crowd around him like he’s Leif Garrett or something cooing his name? Frank Laloggia’s got a bizarre-ass sense of humour, that’s for sure. It’s little things like this that stop the film from being just another rip-off. There were other things too; the make-up on the demon the first time we see him in the prologue is pretty thoroughly creepy. The soundtrack is probably the best of any film of that period and type. In place of your average Tears for Fears knock-off bands, the teens in Fear No Evil listen to The Sex Pistols, Talking Heads, and The Ramones at comically high volumes (Frank LaLoggia is not so lucky. Apparently he listens to synth band Trybe, because they wrote the awesomely bad closing music). The teens in Fear No Evil are also about as close to the real thing as I’ve seen in any high school horror picture. Unlike the “you’re just beggin’ for it” stupidity of the teens from Friday the 13th, Prom Night, or My Bloody Valentine, the kids in Fear No Evil feel like the real thing. Sure they’re stupid and mean and awkward, but they’re a long way from the cartoonish brutality of the kids in your average slasher film. Nobody’s hatred of the protagonist is unfounded or pointedly awful. They act mean to Andrew, sure, but they’re just as shitty to each other, too. In fact when Tony and his gang start dropping I couldn’t help but feel like they hadn’t really earned their bad ends. I was waiting for some pig’s blood or something so I could really get behind their getting munched on by zombies, but nothing like that ever shows up, they just act believably idiotic and then make the mistake of stealing a boat to Devil Castle Island for some nude swimming and making out. Tony doesn’t ever actually do any harm to Andrew, he just makes him the butt of a pretty harmless joke. This is both refreshing and a little out of place. It makes Fear No Evil essentially peerless in its teenager behavior, but it also makes for a conclusion with no punch, no pizzazz or tension.

When Margaret and Julie chase Andrew around the castle and the zombies don’t touch them and the cross thing starts glowing and then Andrew becomes a goatman I really didn’t care how it ended. We get some truly awful lighting effects (I’m talkin’ Tron bad) and the obligatory reading of the bible (“hallowed be thy name,” etc.) and it all just feels tacked on. First of all, these two may be preventing the end of the world, but they were too late to stop like a hundred people from being killed by zombies or spontaneous bleeding and lightning strikes. It was like they’d written a better conclusion but took it out because it hadn’t been done before. Things literally just end; we get a Satan-killing light show and that’s that. Is Julie ok? Who knows. Is the devil really vanquished or did he just go into another baby across town? Who knows. Did the devil leave Andrew’s body? If so, is Andrew ok? We will never know. No closure, no nothing. All in all, I guess I kinda liked watching Fear No Evil and it was interesting to see Zombies in service of the devil for once, even if they don’t do anything. In the end, you’re not missing anything special if you give Fear No Evil a miss. You’re just saving yourself a lot of loose ends nagging at you for the rest of the night.

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