07 July 2013

SUMMER OF BLOOD: WHAT A BIG EVERYTHING YOU HAVE

Most people who discuss the 1982 horror film Humongous - already a small and self-selecting lot - typically do not have very admiring things to say about it. Frankly, it's difficult to say why they should; the film is a pretty standard-issue slasher model film, and in fact much of the criticism that arrives at the film's feet is some variation of, "it's full of slasher clichés".

That's an understatement. Lots of movies have slasher clichés; Humongous is special in that virtually everything that happens in it is taken, not just from some other movie, but from some other movie in an aggressively obvious way. Just to throw the two biggest ones out there, the basic scenario is barely adjusted at all from the Joe D'Amato Video Nasty Antropophagus, AKA ad infinitum, which may not have been available to the filmmakers; and during its Final Girl sequence, it borrows the "heroine disguises herself as the killer's mother" gambit from Friday the 13th, Part 2, which beyond a shadow of a doubt was available to the filmmakers, and represents too iconic of a movement to the people who fall in the natural audience for either movie (by which I mean: every single person who might be inclined to see Humongous is a subset of the F13 audience) to even think about referencing it without running the risk of raising the "egads! ripoff!" alarums.

So yes: Humongous is derivative even by the standards of the wild 'n woolly early-'80s slashers, among the most derivative subgenres in the annals of filmmaking; to stand out in that crowd, you must be doing something really craven. And yet, Humongous ends up being a whole lot more than the sum of its pilfering, enough so that I truly cannot comprehend why it has a toxic reputation among its natural fanbase. Have we seen it all before? Hell yes, but that's true for movies that are much better-liked than this one.

The film opens in 1946, and I'm going to get back to that part. For right now, let's jump ahead with the post-credits scene (the credits, by the way, are unusually lovely: faded color photographs with the text written on them in an elegant font, tracking the transition of a character from happy to joyless). This puts us in the summer of 1982, where three young adult siblings are taking a trip, two of them with their significant others. The Simmonses include Eric (David Wallace), a pretty, theoretically nice but awfully bland young man, the apparently-younger Nick (John Wildman), a bullying rageaholic and all-around shit, and Carla (Janit Baldwin), their sarcastic, embittered sister. Her bitterness in this case comes from being the only person on the trip not getting laid, with both of her brothers bringing along their girlfriends, both of whom are instantaneously more likable than the siblings themselves: Nick's lady is Donna Blake (Joy Boushel), a nice enough woman with the crippling psychological issue that she'd transparently rather be with Eric than Nick (but who wouldn't, other than maybe Nancy Spungen), while Eric himself is dating fashion model Sandy Ralston (Janet Julian).

The whole lot of them are on a boat in no obvious body of water; someplace they spell the end-of-summer holiday as "Labor Day", though there are more pronounced "how aboat that Canadian accent, eh?" voices in this film than in the vast majority of Canadian-produced horror pictures (more than in the vast majority of Canadians, for that matter). They happen upon a drifting boater named Bert Defoe (Lane Coleman), who eagerly accepts their offer for help, and brings along a story about Dog Island, the nearby landmass where the sounds of barking and howling have cast a certain eerie pall over the whole vacation to this point. Seems like there's a crazy old lady, Ida Parsons, whose inherited fortune has allowed her to turn the entire island into a fortress where nobody ever goes for fear of her legendarily vicious attack dogs. The story triggers a fight among the travelers, mostly consisting of Nick (who has been getting his way all trip by pointing a rifle at people who disagree with him) deciding to get the fuck out and fails to tell anybody as he pilots the boat at ridiculous speeds through shallow waters at night. Eric tries to stop him, and in barely any time at all, they've literally blown up the boat.

Five terrified survivors end up ashore - nobody knows what the hell happened to Carla - and as they begin to scrounge up enough supplies to camp on the beach and figure out to do in the morning, Nick runs afoul of one of the dogs, though what it does to him (mostly just scuffs and cuts) isn't anything compared to what a very large Something Else (Garry Robbins) does to that dog. Nick has enough presence of mind to run like hell, but he doesn't know the area nearly as well as the Something does, and after a lengthy, hopeless chase, it catches him in a rotting outbuilding and Humongous commits one of the best acts of decency any slasher film can hope to do: it kills off the most awful character first.

The rest of the movie concerns the very confused and terrified survivors (they quickly locate Carla) losing track of each other and finding each other again, hearing dogs but never exactly seeing them - plenty of dog skeletons, uncomfortably enough - and looking for Ida Parsons to beg for help in letting them get off of her death island where they're emphatically not supposed to be. Meanwhile, the Something is aware they're there, but mostly remains aloof, picking them off only when they're isolated and weak (as in the moment where Donna attempts to revive a hypothermic, shocked Bert by rubbing their naked bodies together. Humongous, incidentally, has an unusual number of breast shots even for a slasher movie, or perhaps it's just because the particular Canadian films we've looked at in this Summer of Blood have peen especially chaste). Eventually, the pieces start to fall into place, once Sandy finds Ida's corpse and her diary: back in '46, the woman was raped and left with child, with the baby born on that very island proving to be a mentally retarded agromegaliac. Fearing what the world would think of her child, the mentally broken Ida elected to turn the island in a sanctuary for her son, and when you add a lack of human contact and nothing but savage dogs for company in the mix with mental disability and abnormal strength, you have something awfully like the growling menace that the characters have just started to notice somewhere far enough for immediate safety, but much too close for comfort.

Structurally, William Gray's script suggests a totally routine slasher, but look closely - not even too close - and Humongous starts to reveal itself as a weirdly unconventional thing. The hulking, dimwitted mama's boy killer is as plainly snatched from Friday the 13th, Part 2 as the scene where Sandy tries to trick him by putting on an Ida Parsons impression, but the "haunted island" setting where he's found starts to pull us out of slasher film territory altogether, and that's not nearly the film's most overt break from form. By '82, the "sex=death" rule had been totally absorbed, and yet Sandy, the most sexually active woman in the cast, proves to be the Final Girl, nor is there ever any real doubt about that outcome. There's also the matter of the cast of victims: none of the six young people fit the exact mold of traditional slasher film Expendable Meat, unless it's that the men are pretty easily written off as one or two adjectives describing their personality. The weird thing compared to a Friday the 13th movie, for sure, or even something a bit classier than that, is that the people in Humongous are unusually specific and defined, not in a way that makes us like them any more - trust me, Nick's death is a huge relief, on aesthetic, narrative, and humanistic grounds - but makes them feel a little more interesting than the ordinary grist mill of anonymous targets for a psycho's ire. Not least because even if the scenario is familiar (horny folks on a vacation in a woody area), the cast is absolutely, unmistakable meant to be outside of their teen years, and that's rare enough in a slasher film of any vintage to be worthy of mention.

It's also, in general, an intriguingly, not totally well-made film. I did not realise when building my schedule that Humongous is our second visit with director Paul Lynch this Summer of Blood; he also made the much more famous Prom Night, which is probably the more overall successful work, but in certain key ways Humongous is more appealing, and I am primarily thinking here of the cinematography, this time headed by Brian R.R. Hebb, though it is very characteristic of the director. For in Prom Night, everything was so dark you could barely tell what was going on; in Humongous, the same thing happens, but it works better, sort of. There are still scenes that are flat-out disasters of, "I don't know, but there's screaming, so it must be death", particularly in the sequence where Sandy, Carla, and Eric are hunting around Ida Parson's home, looking for clues. Insofar as the film makes this work, it's because this creates a sense of dissociative dread that fits the content well; we are confused and off-balance because the characters are. Yeah, it's still irritatingly dark in places, but after we finally see the hulking man-beast, it becomes unmistakably clear that we're better off when he's in too much gloom to see what he looks like.

A final word, and that's about the opening scene. It's a traditional slasher prologue, really: Ida (Shay Garner) is at a huge Labor Day party, and she rebuffs a certain Tom Rice (Page Fletcher), who drunkenly responds by raping the devil into her. Basic stuff, from a storytelling standpoint, and yet I can't help but be deeply uncomfortable with it, mostly because of how Lynch and company stage the rape itself. There's quite a lot shown from Ida's POV, a most bold and effective choice to discombobulate the viewer, who is presumed to be a male. In 1982, don't forget, the tradition of grind house cinema where rape scenes were included to funnel nominally erotic nudity into movies was just a couple years out of date, so the idea of a rape scene that was meant to make us feel for the woman being raped and to have the same sense of terror and violation as she was, itself, somewhat progressive. But then, there are weirdly mechanical shots of Ida's naked body, neck down, from no identified POV to speak of, and they feel blandly identical to the exact sort of "like boobs? Here's some rapey boobs" staging that the identification with Ida presumably is meant to counteract. The result is a tonal mismatch and a scene that's both sleazy and harrowing, not the kind of combination that any film could ever make work, let alone a trashy horror flick. The film never traffics in this kind of unpleasant ambivalence again, but it starts things off on the worst foot.

Anyway, I don't want to pretend that Humongous isn't what it is: junk, with characters of limited interest or psychological insight, notable mostly for being better-acted than most slasher films, and having a somewhat unique villain. It deserves a better reputation than it has, but it's still not a lost classic: just a meat and potatoes horror flick that doesn't pretend to be smarter than it is, and has a scattered handful of really good details studded in among the paint-by-numbers stuff.

Body Count: 7, not counting Ida's dead body, seen in the side of a frame or two; frankly, it didn't seem to be in the spirit of the thing.

1 comment:

JD said...

I don't have anything germane to say regarding the movie (though oddly I do enjoy reading analyses of a genre that's never done much for me), but I cannot thank you enough for pointing out that the general Canadian accent is "aboat" and not "aboot."