28 December 2012

YEAR OF BLOOD: RADIANCE BLEEDS FROM THY HOLY FACE

After three movies, the Silent Night, Deadly Night franchise had apparently exhausted itself - in point of fact, it had done so after the first Silent Night, Deadly Night, but it took people a couple of horribly misjudged sequels to figure that out - because 1990's Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation found the series abandoning the saga of Santa-crazed killer brothers Billy and Ricky Caldwell altogether, holding onto the brand name just because, what the hell, it's a good pun. Which it isn't even, but that has never stopped craven movie producers, any more than it stops film bloggers.

The idea is not without merit: turn the series into an anthology of seasonal horror films, sort of like Halloween III: Season of the Witch was meant to do before fan outcry killed that idea in its crib. The key difference being that Season of the Witch, for all its grotesque flaws (and "grotesque" barely covers it), is so very much about Halloween, down to its very toes; while Initiation is about Christmas so little that only one scene, which could easily have been re-written, is actually predicated on it, and the various snippets of holiday decorations that otherwise tie it to the Christmas season don't make up more than about a minute of screentime. This despite having an entire plot based on neo-pagan worship, which would theoretically lend itself fairly obviously to a "Christmas vs. Yuletide" scenario, but nothing at all of the sort ever happens. It's an achingly straightforward example of early '90s DTV horror, when the last twitches of the slasher film's corpse had finally stopped, and for some reason, lesbian witchcraft became a thing for a short time. Though if I told you that Initiation was about lesbian witches, and left it at that, I'd have given you a deeply misleading impression of just how goddamn pointless and boring the movie was. "Lesbian witches" in this case, is just a good shorthand for the film's overriding mistrust of female empowerment, though it is equally appalled at men who try to stand in judgment over women. Basically, it's just a toxic film in which everybody and everything sucks. Fa-la-la!

The film starts off by introducing us to a hobo named Ricky - not the same Ricky as in the other movies, but I bet it's a deliberate reference - played by Clint Howard, digging food out of the trash, as a woman covered in flames jumps to her death off an apartment building, landing at his feet. Everything about this scene is tasteless and exploitative, yet is is the best part of the film to follow, since it is based in some kind of observed human behavior. On the backside of hilariously overworked credits, in which the text is subjected to every manipulation on the editor's old-school computer (words bend left, they bend right, they spin in circles, and it's all so silly that you have to love it), we find lovers Kim (Neith Hunter) and Hank (Tommy Hinkley) having the kind of enthusiastic not-quite-hardcore sex typical of the era's direct-to-video "horror", before heading off the work at the offices of L.A. Eye, one of Los Angeles's alternative newspapers. Kim, we find, is a frustrated wannabe reporter, who keeps getting shot down by the heavily masculine power structure at the paper, and she lives in hope that this burning suicide victim will be her chance to prove to editor Eli Wallace (Reggie Bannister), whose name makes me so angry I could spit bees, that she has what it takes.

Unfortunately, Eli's not about to give her the break on his own initiative - after all, she's a girl - so Kim goes investigating on her own, and her investigations go through a bookstore owned by the strange Fima (Maud Adams, the film's "name"), who basically forces on the younger woman a copy of Initiation of the Virgin Goddess, a description of neo-pagan feminist rituals. This proves to be the beginning of the end for poor Kim: no sooner does she bring the book into her home than cockroaches start appearing all over, and that is definitely the least upsetting bug-related trauma waiting for her, as it quickly turns out that Fima, and her two friends, the maidenly Jane (Marjean Holden) and crone-like Katherine (Jeanne Bates) are the leaders of a cult worshiping the goddess Lilith, first wife of Adam and spiritual precursor to all independent women. And this, somehow, involves forcing Kim into acting out the birth scene from The Fly.

It required a shockingly large number of people to assemble a story and screenplay that does not, in the end, have much of any content: it's much more concerned with flinging symbolism every which way than keeping itself coherent, and the last third of the movie is an incomprehensible mess of horrifying imagery slathered atop a lot of scenes that individually seem to argue that, whatever else is true, feminists secretly want all men dead. Insofar as there's a conflict, that's literally all it is: the only coherent, consistent aspect of the Lilith circle's philosophy is that they want to do away with men. This at first entices and then disgusts Kim, who has to deal with quite a lot of sexist nonsense over the course of the movie (the scene where she confronts Hank's dad is written like a particularly hectoring PSA), but certainly doesn't want to go killing men.

You will note that what it does not have to do with, in any way at all, is Christmas, although there is a scene where Ricky, Fima's henchman as it turns out, watches footage from Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out!, and giggles "killer Santa!" Because you cannot make a Silent Night, Deadly Night without footage from another Silent Night, Deadly Night cropping up inappropriately, it seems.

Just about the only genuinely admirable thing about Initiation is that Brian Yuzna - producer of the seminal Re-Animator, and thus an even sadder waste of talent than Monte Hellman was directing Better Watch Out!, since Yuzna's previous great success was in this very same genre - does an extremely good job of layering symbolism, as both foreshadowing and callbacks, so the film feels like it's tied together in some way, even if the symbolism seems to exist solely for the sake of symbolism and not because it actually symbolises anything in particular, other than that feminists hate penises, in this highly reductive worldview. On the whole, it is an utter, unappealing failure: it doesn't make enough sense to build any kind of tension, and the splashes of body horror in the last third are simply gross more than they are unsettling or horrifying. The atmosphere is so pervasively "low budget L.A." that it never ceases to feel like the exact thing it is, a chintzy DTV movie that is filed under horror only because it doesn't show enough nipples to be an erotic thriller.

And Neith Hunter - in addition to have a made-up first name (apparently, Neith was an Eygptian mother goddess, which makes her casting a nice coincidence) - is unbearably bad, a stand-out in a cast that doesn't exactly light the screen on fire. There's a scene where Maud Adams literally has to feed her a line - if you ever decide to hunt down this desperately pointless unhorror film, it's when Fima is greeting Kim at their picnic - that is how unbearably bad.

But at least it has semi-real actors in the form of Maud Adams and Clint Howard. That alone is enough to make it tolerable as far as DTV films from the early '90s go, for if ever there was a time and a medium that just about guaranteed you were in for a miserable time, it was early '90s DTV horror. Initiation might suck in every way, but it's merely bad and confusing; it does not gape like a festering wound made out of nothing but hatred for the art of cinema. Also, it is made up almost exclusively of footage shot just for this project, and that alone makes it incalculably superior to Silent Night, Deadly Night, Part 2.

Body Count: 5 for certain, plus a very likely 6th. But it's not that kind of horror movie. Lord knows what kind it is.

Reviews in this series
Silent Night, Deadly Night (Sellier, 1984)
Silent Night, Deadly Night, Part 2 (Harry, 1987)
Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out! (Hellman, 1989)
Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation (Yuzna, 1990)
Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker (Kitrosser, 1991)

2 comments:

boy on the dock said...

go see django, like, yesterday.

Michael James Roberson said...

Wow, Clint Howard and Reggie Bannister? Yup, it's a '90s DTV horror movie all right. It also sounds a lot like Society, also by Yuzna (who actually does have a few very decent films under his belt).