23 August 2013

SUMMER OF BLOOD: THE GIRLFRIEND FROM HELL

The horror genre was at, perhaps, its all-time low in the early 1990s, and in Canada just as in the U.S. that means it was time for direct-to-video shlock to muscle its way in. Thus we arrive at Prom Night III: The Last Kiss, which is as cheap and as horrendously acted as you'd ever want a DTV movie released in 1990 to be. Though as befit its country of origin, always anxious to do things just a little bit more oddly than the soulless Yanks with their cash-in approach to genre films, The Last Kiss is actually a damn sight weirder and more ambitious - though surely no more successful - than virtually anything else you're likely to encounter from the same year.

Before we get into that, let's start with the simple but, contextually, surprising fact that The Last Kiss, uniquely among Prom Night movies, is something like an actual sequel to one of the other films in the franchise. It doesn't in any way continue the story of Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II - and it's not remotely connected to the original 1980 Prom Night - but it makes specific reference to some of the events of that film, and the titular Mary Lou Maloney even returns, though she's now being played by one Courtney Taylor, who I can't rightly call a trade up or a trade down from Lisa Schrage, except in that she feels like a totally different character now. Given that she is a vengeance-driven poltergeist "character" is likely the wrong word to be using in the first place.

Anyway, it's an indefinite time after the Hamilton High School gym was destroyed on prom night, and the spirit of long-dead prom queen Mary Lou sent back to her hell dimension, which we get to see now in the film's opening scene, and boy, is it ever a loopy one. Basically, Hell in The Last Kiss is a place where manacled women in torn nylon stockings do aerobics for all eternity, and I didn't make up a goddamn word of that, I promise you. Mary Lou is having none of this, so she breaks her chains with a nail file and escapes to Hamilton High, where her first act is to use a spectral jukebox to electrocute janitor Jack (Terry Doyle), who was there the night in 1957 when she burned to death. I didn't make up a goddamn word of that, either.

I'm going to skip ahead a bit, and reveal that The Last Kiss is a comedy. A horror-comedy, nominally, but you know how these things go: either the balance is too much towards horror, and the jokes are all pitch-black and meanspirited, or the balance is too much towards comedy, and it basically becomes a farce with gross-out death scenes. The Last Kiss decides, very early, that it's going to be a comedy with a marginal amount of horror, and it never once looks back. This is to its benefit in at least one regard: the gore effects, which are laughably unpersuasive and overdetermined, work on at least some legitimate level when we're plainly not supposed to take any of them seriously, and so when a man is gutted and filled with banana split fixins, this is a "joke", and not just a terrible, terrible, ill-executed attempt at a cruelly comic slasher killing.

The flipside is that, if you're going to make your horror-comedy a straight-up comedy, you need to be absolutely certain that the comedy is funny. For bad horror, like most bad filmmaking, can have its own magnetism and charm; but bad comedy by definition doesn't, since you cannot laugh at bad comedy. The Last Kiss isn't, by any means, reprehensibly bad comedy, but it only has a few different ideas for jokes, and it recycles these endlessly until its final act comes along, the film essentially says "fuck it", and the surrealist absurdity starts in earnest. Which is a mode that works out a lot better the comedy does.

What happens after Mary Lou's resurrection is thus: she haunts about, looking for someone to latch onto, and find him in the form of Alex Grey (Tim Conlon). Considering that this is junk on two separate levels (insincere horror-comedy and bargain basement 1990s genre fair), it's genuinely astonishing how much effort The Last Kiss puts into building up Alex's character, positing him as torn between his best friend, the geek slacker Shane (David Stratton), and his girlfriend of precisely one year, Sarah (Cynthia Preston, going in those days as Cyndy). Neither Shane nor Sarah, it should be noted, get anything like Alex's depth of character: Shane is just a vaguely-defined "the male world that you are abandoning because of your love life", while Sarah, though given more traits, never emerges as anything but a nag, the dullest kind of stock character girlfriend, and all the more frustrating because the movie honestly expects that we're invested enough in her as a person that we'll buy it when she turns into the hero of the final sequence, or that we'll see it as tragic when she starts to lose Alex for reasons beyond her comprehension. She's just a space-filler, and not remotely up to the task of being a legitimate Other Woman to the vengeance ghost.

After Alex and Sarah have the latest of their frequent micro-fights, Alex goes to school to pick up some books, and there he meets - and sleeps with - Mary Lou's ghost, right on top of an American flag. The score, blaring forth with "The Star-Spangled Banner", takes this to be ironic in some way that the rest of the movie isn't kenning. This turns out to be the beginning of the end for Alex: he immediately starts to see and hear Mary Lou everywhere, quickly putting two and two together and coming up with "dead prom queen"; Mary Lou, for her part, is so anxious that her new fleshy boyfriend should survive and succeed that she begins to manipulate the world to improve his grades and sports career, killing anybody who stands too much in the way. Confused as to what else he can do, Alex buries the bodies and ask Mary Lou not to do it again. Rinse, repeat.

Alex, as I've said, is an unusually complex figure for a movie of this sort; Mary Lou, on the other hand, is not, and that proves fatal for any chance that The Last Kiss will work the way it wants to, since she is our designated Murderous Quipster Ghost, a veritable female Freddy Krueger without the idiosyncracies that make it vaguely tolerable when Freddy does his bloody stand-up routine. The more she spouts off lines that are plainly written as gags, but divorced from a credible personality or a performance that gives the illusion of personality, they all fall flat, and as the movie enters its damnably repetitious phase, where the same bickering between Alex and Mary Lou occurs three or four or hell, I don't know, 15 separate times, even the remotest goodwill that the movie's weirdness might have generated burns off, replaced by annoyance and boredom. In the meantime, comic business around the edges - notably an ironic intercom system straight out of M*A*S*H, or at least its community-theater equivalent - manages to also not be very funny, though at least it comes closer than Mary Lou's endless, arid bantering.

The Last Kiss falls into a chasm between being, on the one side, too frivolous and unserious about its content to be remotely compelling as a story in its own right, and being, on the other side, too labored and irritating to have the high spirit needed to justify being so damn frivolous. And it is a tedious film as a result. Oh! there is nothing as grating as wacky comedy that isn't landing - and comedy being so personal, I am not surprised that The Last Kiss enjoys as cult following. But it must be an awfully insular cult, to enjoy what directors Ron Oliver and Peter R. Simpson (the former wrote the screenplay) are doing in their non-scary, unfunny horror-comedy, in which absolutely nothing is credible but Alex and Conlon's charismatically clueless approach to playing him (imagine somebody with more heart than talent doing a Ferris Bueller impression; you are most of the way there), and that's simply not enough to keep the movie interesting or entertaining.

Until, that is, the finale: Alex and Mary Lou and Sarah in a chase scene through the film's rinky-dink iteration of Hell, no longer an aerobics class but a nightmare version of Hamilton High itself. The movie has always been distinctly off-kilter; but here, and only here, it becomes outright weird, and suddenly turns into something fascinating and mesmerising to watch. Characters we've seen die appear as sarcastic zombie versions of themselves, and the set design goes from shamefully trying to look plusher than it is to proudly turning the film's low budget into a strength, as it commits to look and feel like a haunted house put on by volunteers. And there's a flamethrower that literally just appears in the space of a cut. It's daft as hell, but at least it has the "wait, what am I looking at?" feeling that, presumably, the whole movie was meant to be playing with, and if that doesn't quite make it actually good, or actually interesting, at least it's compelling, and that's more than the rest of the movie can say. This is strange as all hell, but only the last 15 minutes are actually strange in a fun way; the rest is just tetchy zaniness and not even a little bit enjoyable, on any level.

Body Count: 7, not counting one mentioned in an offscreen joke, nor the spirits of the damned.

Reviews in this series
Prom Night (Lynch, 1980)
Hello, Mary Lou: Prom Night II (Pittman, 1987)
Prom Night III: The Last Kiss (Oliver & Simpson, 1990)
Prom Night IV: Deliver Us from Evil (Borris, 1992)
Prom Night (McCormick, 2008)

3 comments:

KingKubrick said...

Wow, I thought you'd like this more than you did. Keeping in my mind I haven't seen this movie in a good decade and change, I really remember enjoying it a helluva a lot. You're spot on about the ending being the most memorable part; being trapped in the fifties as a nightmare version of hell really stuck with me.
Maybe I should rewatch this and reassess it but this was one of the seminal slasher films I watched in my youth that put me on the path of my life long love of slashers. I particularly remember Alex's discussion about the "other woman" with his father being hilarious.

Well, this will be one of the slashers I watch this halloween. Hilarious review Tim.

Tim said...

Even as I was watching it, I felt like I should have been liking it more, and I think it comes down to this: the first and last 20 minutes are great, but the middle is just one joke over and over again, and it's a joke I didn't like the first time. So the longer the movie went on, the further it got on my bad side.

But as far as '90s slashers go, it's certainly not one of the worst. Probably a taste issue more than anything else.

KingKubrick said...

Well, if you thought this was bad... prepare yourself for Prom Night IV. I don't even think I made it all the way through.