It's that time of year again. The leaves turn, the footballs fly, and the VCR comes out of storage so we at the Pink Smoke can do what no one else on the internet does: watch horror movies and write about them.
Ok, It may not be groundbreaking, but for us reviewing movies of the macabre while snacking on candy corn is fun and educational. We didn't go for any specific theme this year, which opened up the opportunity to catch up with neglected movies from last year's Halloween. Hence today's subject...
william hinzman, 1986
~ by JOHN CRIBBS ~
"This is possibly my new favorite movie of all time."
That's the first sentence I wrote one year ago after watching The Majorettes. But let me back up a little...
I was supposed to write about this film last October as part of the second week of my aborted "30 Days of Horror" series, wherein I would watch and write about a different horror movie each day of the month. I published the first segment...and that was it. Part of it was my over-ambition in not only doing that series, but also at least one separate horror-related article each week (in my defense, I got all those finished in addition to watching at least forty new horror movies in one month.) But the real reason it never got finished was my ill-advised decision to make the theme of the second week "Slasher Movies." I figured some dumb 80's slice and dice flicks would be amusing to view and fun to write about. I was wrong.
Of the six I saw, one was tolerable (Eyes of a Stranger), one was weird enough to be interesting (Fred Olin Rey's Scalps) but three - The Burning, Madman and Slaughterhouse -
were so fucking bad. I can never bring myself to condemn a film with a single sentence ("This just plain sucked - the end!"), but at the same time trying to explain why these movies are terrible - were terrible when they were released and remain terrible to this day - which should have been the easiest thing in the world, got me so depressed I couldn't continue writing. After a lot of starts and stops I just stalled out completely and the whole experiment collapsed. They say it's easier to write about
bad movies and sometimes that's true, but in the case of these exercises in artless mayhem I just couldn't bring myself to sit down and think about them long enough to translate those thoughts into sentences that would just turn out long-winded, repetitive and not interesting to read at all.
But there was one movie I watched that week that kind of blew me away. I don't know if it was because those other films were so indefensibly awful, or if it just reached the right level of weirdness that to throw off my judgment, but The Majorettes felt like the rose atop a mountain of garbage left festering in the sun for three decades. I want to state that, of course, my flat-out hatred of those previously mentioned movies has nothing to do with the usual watchdog arguments against the "knife-kill" horror film. I'm the last person to be offended by graphic gore effects, excessive violence and - as my appreciation of The Majorettes avows - I don't get on my high horse to preach about the evils of misogyny in slasher movies (I'm a noted philogynist.)
And I hate to sound like a broken record but there's something important that needs to be repeated when writing about a film like The Majorettes. I'm not someone who guffaws and gushes over a movie that's "so bad it's good." Some of those beloved B-movies, like Manos: The Hands of Fate and The Sadist, are ones I appreciate not because of their embarrassingly poor quality, but because of the things in those films that are genuinely weird and interesting that can't be found in any other movie. When I talk about those films I don't feel the need to add a disclaimer or wear an ironic t-shirt with "NILBOG" on it. I feel like I have a good sense of a director's
intentions. That's why I can never get into a Troma movie: I know the people behind it are intelligent, but it doesn't read onscreen - it just feels like they're fucking around on purpose because get it, that's how these kind of movies are supposed to be. I can always forgive lousy direction, writing, acting and production quality if there's something genuinely odd to appreciate about the intent behind the movie, whereas a film with intentionally bad dialogue that looks crummy on purpose I've got no time for.
It's easy to make fun or enjoy the ridiculousness of Criswell's opening line from Plan 9 from Outer Space - "We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives!" - but I always found that sentence strangely profound and even moving. At least admit it's a strange sentence that nobody but Ed Wood Jr. could have come up with. You couldn't make Plan 9 with the objective of it turning out bizarre and campy - a movie like that came from
a real place and, for me at least, has value based on that. Maybe I'm crazy, but when I watched that documentary Best Worst Movie last year and the "deluded" Italian director of Troll 2 talked about how the kid seeing his dead grandfather in the mirror was meant to symbolize how the boy will one day grow up to be old himself, I thought "Huh - that's neat."
On the flip side, I'm also not someone who defends campy old movies and gets all upset over the existence of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (which I still believe to be possibly the most amazing concept of a television show ever.) The "cult" or "cheapie" or "exploitation," whatever you want to call the output of Corman, Steckler and Arch Halls Jr. and Sr., were knock-offs - imitations of much better, visionary genre
films that were popular because they were actually good.
I love Joe Dante, I love that Joe Dante loves This Island Earth*, but I couldn't sit through dreck like that without an amusing soundtrack provided by robot silhouettes. Unless something about the movie really connects with my sensibility, to me it's just bad actors in stupid costumes being chased by people in rubber masks around a cardboard set with no substance to transcend those elements a'la Doctor Who (I'm also a fan of the old Batman tv show,
which you could claim was self-consciously campy and injudiciously redundant, and you'd be right - but always had a certain ostentatious je nes se quoi that made it imminently watchable.)
Thanks to Joe Bob Briggs, I have more tolerance for the post-Texas Chain Saw Massacre "drive-in" movie, but if last year's Week of Slashers made me realize anything, it's that the same rules apply to horror movies of the 1980's: being goofy isn't enough, self-conscious scenes of brutal slayings are boring and
uncinematic and, as Chris brought up in his recent article on Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, a subgenre of movies that were banged out for a buck and dumped into the overflowing market of horror videos is just going to churn out 99% crap by its own design. A film off that conveyor belt has to come from a real place of genuine weirdness for me to appreciate it any level.
As an alternate to having to include it in a set of depressing write-ups about uninspired slashers, I considered making Majorettes last year's Annual October Horror Video Oddity instead of Satan's Cheerleaders; not just because it's a superior film, but because it is so specifically better than Satan's Cheerleaders in every way. The filmmaking is better, the acting
is better, there's no trace of the director back-pedaling or winking at the audience. The whole thing is played straight, so that even the flagrantly outlandish stuff seems more like a part of the crazy world of the movie rather than an attempt at humor that just adds to the overall ineptitude like in Satan's Cheerleaders. I will probably offend every former and current majorette by likening them to cheerleaders, but are majorettes (or the "colorguard" or "flag corps" as they were called
at my high school; I believe "majorette" is technically the French word for "cheerleader?") not ostensibly a glorified pep squad with batons, shinier uniforms and better choreography (now I've offended cheerleaders too!)
Whether they're rejected "inspiration leaders" or joined the squad with the conviction that rhythmic gymnastics is a more respectable way of celebrating the poor performance of high school athletes, the majorettes of this film have their own pep and personalities,
even if the names kind of run together. They're not the stars of their own movie, which would seem like a negative compared to the four confident young ladies of Satan's Cheerleaders except for one thing: they're still better characters. Majorettes doesn't need to write its heroines' names on their shirts to make sure we know who they are... even if they enter the film merely to be dispatched one scene later by the lumbering, masked, camouflage-clad psycho on a mission to absolve the majorettes their
sins via serrated knife to the esophagus.
The majorettes are introduced practicing in the high school gym: a kind of wobbly, badly choreographed routine that doesn't so much read as "actors doing a bad job pretending to be dancers" as "majorettes doing a bad job pretending to be talented." Each girl gets her own solo part, grooving into the foreground and breaking it down for the cheap seats (I truly believe that Peyton Reed saw Majorettes and decided to do a flashier version for Bring It On's opening "roll call" dance sequence.) It goes without saying that none of the cast looks a day below 26, but that's something else that I think works: these "young" girls have illusions of being mature women, channeling empowerment through the sultry solo moves as they pose for the camera of an enamored yearbook photographer. That same sense of disco-inspired dexterity follows them into the locker room, where another photo session takes place from
an adjoining closet behind the grate as the girls disrobe. The director has taken the characters out of a public and into a private setting, where their "positive" command of who they are and what they stand for has degenerated into a sordid peepshow, and it's the contrast of how other people see this group of girls - as popular, worshipful small town sirens to be protected or sinful, tawdry trash to be disposed of.
The movie kicks into gear with the ol' "two teens in a parked car in an isolated area at night" scenario, but it quickly turns interesting. The girl, Nicole, is a popular majorette, but the guy isn't some football jock - he's the nerdy yearbook photographer, his pimply face beaming like he just won the lottery. How the hell'd he get so lucky? (In the opening dance scene it's notable how suggestively Nicole moves before his lens.)
She makes serious advances but before they go through with it she breaks down crying: turns out it was all a scheme. She's pregnant by ill-reputed "dope pusher" Mace Jackson, local petty thug who has no interest in supporting Nicole or her forthcoming baby, so she figured she'd give herself to this unsuspecting geek knowing he'd do the right thing (essentially the same plot Susan Cabot unsuccessfully hatched against Dick Miller in Sorority Girl.)
From her reluctance to entrap this unwitting virgin, Nicole shows that she's not actually a bad person, just a girl with genuine emotions who made some poor decisions. It looks as if this may be a turning point in her life, from which she'll learn to own up to her mistakes and blossom into a loving and responsible parent. But before any of that can happen, the killer makes his heavy breathing first appearance, rips through the roof of the car with a giant knife, kills the virgin (poor guy!) and catches up to Nicole in the woods, stabbing her to death and carefully, even reverently, dipping her body under the cold surface of the swamp.
Shots of Nicole's submersion is cut in with a transition to the next morning and a little girl in white being baptized in a lake as a proud congregation stands by. The murder's motivation unfolds as the twin "total immersions" clarify the killer's need to "cleanse" his victims of what he sees as their vile majorette ways. "Do not imitate what is evil but what is good," the preacher paraphrases from scripture.
"Those that are evil are subject to punishment." The next two murders of sister majorettes are also (and even more conveniently) water-based, one butchered in her backyard pool while the other is surprised in the gym room shower. Of course this ties into the whole slasher trope of sick-killer-aversion-to-teenage-sex-and-drug-debauchery, but the religion angle makes the whole business that much more sinister. Instead of leaving it at a group of well-dressed Southern Baptists on a beautiful Sunday morning
outside, the director huddles them together and shoots them on what looks like a isolated peninsula, from behind, their reflections doubling their number on the smooth surface of the lake. He adds a giant cross that towers over the group: the effect makes them seem positively cultish. This isn't the incompetent small town satanic society of Satan's Cheerleaders. These people don't do anything unsettling in this scene and never return after this point in the film. Yet there's something about them that is
dangerous and untrustworthy the way blind devotion to any organized religion and the literal translating of biblical text can potentially birth a sick serial murderer, who we later learn is standing among the sheep of this particular flock and taking the good priest's words to heart.
"Why are so many bad things happening to us??" future victim Judy asks of her fellow flag followers. A private detective on the case answers her question speaking to the majorettes' coach (this movie's version Satan's Cheerleaders' Ms. Johnson, who is not only of normal intelligence but offers to share financial assistance information with one of her struggling girls to help her get into college) about the targeted group:
"They're high profile - small town like this, they're about as high profile as you can get. Their thing is to look pretty and sexy in front of a stadium full of people." Clearly, the movie is of the opinion that there's nothing wrong with vacuous baton tossing and tight, flashy costumes in and of itself, but that the life of a majorette positions a young woman to be viewed as a teasing sex symbol and, at worst, an empty vessel of infinite vulnerability.
Moreso than the camp counselors at Crystal Lake
or the Elm Street kids, there appears to be motivation between these characters' lack of development: they simply don't know how to be anything more than what they are. That's fine, the movie seems to be saying, but what about the troubled folks in the world who take offense at the idea of pampered, popular, pretty girls who would dare to defy purity? These girls are as unblighted as any high schooler, but somehow what their "high profile" symbolizes for others is a mocking pubescence, aggressive sexuality
- a unwholesomeness being misrepresented as innocent. That's what makes Nicole's murder so different from the high body count of your run-of-the-mill slasher: it wasn't about promiscuity, it was about a young woman trying to rectify a mistake in what could arguably be considered a socially responsible if horribly manipulative way (and she's not even capable of going through with it!)
So the characters are shallow and uninteresting - they're high schoolers after all. They're sympathetic victims specifically because
they aren't your standard team of horny, pot-smoking lambs to the slaughter, or for that matter virginal heroines whose high ethics make you want to root for them to survive. They're just your average kids with standards, from one extreme to the other, being projected onto them (and giant knives being projected INTO them.)
At this point Majorettes would have no problem coasting on its simple yet intriguing premise of its baton-twirling teenagers being targeted for their perceived wickedness, but the investigation of Nicole's murder leads to the first of two severe and inspired plot detours that make the movie so memorable. Like Satan's Cheerleaders, here we have another amorous janitor who lusts after students in short skirts. The janitor, Harry, is the
one who's been secretly taking photos of the girls in the locker room, but he's not the killer. He's the son of Helga, a scheming German caretaker in the employ of Vicky, one of the lead majorettes. Vicky's parents died in a tragic car crash, but she lives with her wealthy grandmother, a sweet but speechless vegetable confined to a wheelchair thanks to a recent stroke.
Helga is the grandmother's nurse, although her concerns for her patient's health aren't exactly in keeping with the hippocratic oath. She does
intend harm, specifically so she can get her hands on a trust fund left to Vicky by her deceased parents: the problem is that if Vicky dies before her 18th birthday, the $500,000 fund won't be paid. If she dies after her 18th birthday, the money goes to the grandmother, whose death Helga has long been devising so that she can inherit the loot. She and Harry have been trying to figure out a way to set up Vicky for for an "accident," but must wait one more week until Vicky's 18th birthday or they get
nothing. This set-up is magnificently convoluted, but more importantly it stresses the sordidness of the world these girls are trying to bring some joy to. While Vicky is never anything but naively nice to Helga and cheer her grandmother towards recovery, this manipulative monster is plotting her unpleasant demise.
This was the only movie appearance for Denise Huot as Helga the Evil Home Health Aide, and she goes all out. Her wonderfully tongue-in-cheek performance recalls another iconic solo film stint: Deborah Reed as Creedence Leonore Gielgud in Troll 2. Although Huot's performance is much straighter, she still seems to be having fun playing Helga as unambiguously evil, monologuing her plans right in front of the helpless grandmother (who has no way of communicating the plot to anyone) and even finding it irresistible to restrain herself from making puns alluding to her fiendish goal when speaking with Vicky.
As anti-social son Harry, Harold K. Keller's acting is constantly a hair away from becoming an Adam Sandler character although thankfully he's subdued enough that his performance never enters Mark Torgl territory. This duo not only wrest the movie from its fluid journey to generic slasher film obscurity, they literally rip the storyline off its tracks when they accidentally discover the identity of the majorette murderer and blackmail him into taking care of Vicky! Warning him to wait at least a week until she's eligible for reception of the fund, they turn the tables on the film's villain by making him the victim of their own nefarious scheme: he protests by pathetically mumbling his mundane motivations ("I...they...I need to purify the...") as if the movie itself were making a weak case against this unforeseen subversion of its conventional
course. It just goes to prove that you can have an unskilled cast and low budget and still make a genuinely weird and interesting little movie.
The second wrench thrown into the film's reliable "slasher movie" gears comes in the form of goateed "dope pusher" Mace Jackson. Slight of frame and as intimidating as a broken sink faucet, he seems like the sort of character Quentin Tarantino would play: neither cool or handsome, threatening or even competent, but treated as if he's the slickest and most dangerous person any of the other characters have ever come across. Which, again, reads as totally legit - this is a small town after all, and if Mace was able to use his persuasive powers to surround himself with flunkies and floozies there's no reason he shouldn't be able to maintain the reputation of somebody you wouldn't want to fuck with. The genuine psycho of his pack of cronies is a Confederacy-themed creep complete with old-timey pistol who looks like a reject from Deliverance; as we'll eventually find, Mace is really just a scrawny, insecure loser who lets underlings like Civil War Guy do the dirty work for him. Tom E. Desrocher (also making his lone film appearance - where do you go from Mace Jackson?) is, like Harold K. Keller, not the most impressive actor in the world physically or in the performance department, but when you look at it from that angle he's absolutely perfect.
If this film is like a football game, then Mace is the star safety responsible for the interception that upsets the opposing team's initial turnover, the opposing team being Helga and Harry. Just when it looked as if they had come out of left field to steal the movie from its actual slasher, Mace upsets their plans by incidentally kidnapping Vicky (she just happens to be with another dude who he planned on kidnapping.) If the blackmail subplot threw the movie off course, this new development lands it somewhere in completely foreign territory when guns come out and the film turns into a Rolling Thunder-esque revenge-action movie. Mace's gang of trailer trash get into a shoot-out that leaves Vicky in a pile of bodies at an abandoned warehouse, prompting the quarterback boyfriend of one of the dead girls to go home, get a machine gun and lock and load while looking painfully at a picture of him with his girlfriend.
What's great about this set-up is that
his girlfriend was killed by the slasher, not Mace's gang! He's supposed to be avenging Vicky's death, but the focus of his vengeance is confused such is the rampant sordidness of this world. This leads to yet another gun battle that sets up the movie's brilliantly unfulfilling conclusion in which nobody gets revenge on the right person and the killer, who disappears completely from the final reel (as masked murderer and his civilian alter ego) until the last three scenes, ends up getting away with it. The killer's
identity is so inconsequential to the movie itself I never for a second felt like I should mention anywhere in this article that it's the fat sheriff (spoiler!)
The Majorettes, also titled (or subtitled, not 100% sure which) One By One, is oddly enough a Night of the Living Dead reunion. Directed by William Hinzman, who played the very first zombie in Romero's 1968 classic, it also features Russell Streiner, who played Johnny, the first victim of the first zombie, in a cameo as the preacher. It was based on a novel (no shit!) by John A. Russo, who adapted his own book. Russo was the co-writer of Living Dead who famously took Romero to court over the use of the title for future installments (in a weird verdict, Russo was given permission to use "Living Dead" for his projects while Romero could only use "Dead," hence the creation of the Return of the Living Dead series unrelated to Romero's trilogy.) Hinzman would return to the zombie film two years after Majorettes' release with 1988's Flesheater a.k.a. Revenge of the
Living Zombies**, which he wrote, directed and appeared in as the lead flesheater. That movie self-consciously ripped off the end of Night of the Living Dead by having its hero snipered by the same actor who headed the zombie-hunting posse and shot Duane Jones at the end of Romero's movie. Majorettes was shot in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania outside of Pittsburgh, where Hinzman was born (also Michael Keaton.)
I've looked up some reviews of this one, each with a snarky detached tone that I just hate reading, and weirdly enough they're all critical of the direction the movie ends up going in. Apparently they wanted it to be just like The Burning or Madman, with one boring decapitation after another, literally nothing to separate it from any meatless slasher flick from the same era. This seems to stem from that unfathomable reverence for dispensable fare with no merit or motivation beyond scraping a quick buck off the horror movie home video craze of the 70's and 80's, from the same people who debate the "best kills" from the indistinguishable Friday the 13th series and honestly believe that Scream was a revelatory post-modern mark on the horror film when it was little more than a late splash in the long-dead slasher subgenre. There's more to The Majorettes - it goes out of its way to be different and discovers a style of storytelling that transcends quality.
Although it would be hard to defend it against the usual complaints people have with exploitation films, it's comparatively restrained: before the Mace Jackson massacre it has a relatively low body count, with the killer claiming a modest three victims, the same number as the original Halloween if you don't include the off-screen death of the tow truck driver (or the dog Michael Myers has for dinner.) And when they break out the guns, it's the final battle of Death Wish 3 on
a smaller scale where it's like the world is ending and everyone is indiscriminately killing each other. There are no survivors: all the lead majorettes have been killed, and the final shot is of the murderer keeping an eye on a squad of young girls practicing their baton twirling who will grow up to become the next generation of victims. This is a weird kind of movie suicide along the lines of Dead or Alive where the only possible outcome is destruction for everyone.
In closing, I just want to clarify that I'm not recommending The Majorettes. It's a movie that worked for me that, clearly, doesn't work for everyone and possibly won't work for anyone else. But I task every reader to go out and find your own Majorettes, a weird little forgotten movie that somehow manages to rise above the mediocrity and make you notice it.
~ OCTOBER, 2011 ~
* My appreciation of This Island Earth is actually my appreciation of Joe Dante's appreciation.
** Does that mean the zombies in that movie were actually alive? This would be an interesting twist.