Thursday, September 1, 2016

Episode 20: Serial Slayer (2003)

“Maybe somebody’s trying to scare us...”

As some of you may’ve noticed, I often gush about movies either no one’s seen, or no one liked. This is another such occasion. Oh and there are spoilers aplenty, so buckle up, bitches, motherfuckers.

While house-sitting, Lauren (Melanie Lynskey, of Peter Jackson’s cult favorite Heavenly Creatures) decides to host a get-together for some female co-workers. Much to her chagrin, only two invitees show up: Gina (Sheeri Rappaport), her closest friend, and Grace (Mary-Lynn Rajskub, of TV’s 24), the office wallflower.

Meanwhile, a crossbow-wielding maniac is stalking the streets of suburban Los Angeles, creating a mass panic. His targets are random and impossible predict, rousing much speculation by TV reporters and radio personalities, all of whom are set on finding a pattern they can use to generate some sort of profile to aid investigators.

As a scorching summer afternoon wears on, Lauren realizes that the party she’d prepared for is a bust. While she and her only guests search for ways to fill those uncomfortable silences, they discover the electricity has been cut, the phone is dead, and heavy footfalls continually traverse the gravel-lined rooftop. Has LA’s latest headline-grabbing menace chosen them as his latest targets, or are the girls merely the brunt of a infantile prank orchestrated by some uninvited colleagues?

I’m obviously no filmmaker, but I’ve seen more than my share of genre films, especially those which fall under the horror/suspense umbrella. In those endless hours of watching, enjoying, and studying these films, one of many things I’ve learned is that it’s incredibly difficult to build tension/suspense when shooting on video. Oftentimes, it takes the viewer out of the experience because, well, it doesn’t feel like you’re watching an actual feature. Most of the time, it feels like you’re enduring vacation videos shot by a friend you don’t even like, some pre-adolescent endeavor shot over the course of an afternoon, or a student film manufactured for an introductory course.

It’s easy to scoff at movies like The Last Slumber Party (the focus of B-Movie Bonanza’s previous episode),  Boardinghouse, Cemetery Sisters, and pretty much anything in Brain Damage’s extensive library. These are amateur efforts spearheaded by those with egos large enough to assume they could tackle the massive undertaking putting a feature together actually is. Adding further insult to severe injury, these schlockfests often include “stars” who’ve never even held an actual film script (my absolute favorite is when their names are plastered all over the box art, as though anyone but their immediate families know who they are).

Would I put Serial Slayer in the same category as some of the aforementioned titles? Place writer/director Mark Tapio Kines among the less-than-gifted Hitchcock wannabes who produced such nonsense?

Absolutely not.

First and foremost, our three leads are accomplished thespians, which certainly helps raise the bar, but what makes the film so effective is its simplicity. The majority of the scenes take place under one roof and the dialogue helps propel the story forward with very few lulls. True, there are some moments of silliness and pure absurdity. Yes, it’s easy to disregard something done on a budget as small as this (truth be told, I considered removing the disc from my player after watching the 30-seond trailer the first time around), but if you go in with an open mind, chances are you’ll be pleasantly surprised. I know I certainly was.

Or maybe you’ll bitch and moan because you were expecting Final Exam or Prom Night, just as so many basement-dwelling fanboys did the minute Serial Slayer hit video store shelves.

There are two things that reeled me in the first time I sat down to watch the movie. First, it’s a story driven by dialogue, almost like a play, and there are very few scenes involving intricately choreographed stunts. Second, I sat through the first half unsure of what was actually happening. Yes, it’s established that there is a madman on the loose, but the set-up leaves the viewer wondering if he’s the one creeping about, or if something deeper is going on. There’s a number of characters mentioned, but never seen (i.e. co-workers and the boyfriend Lauren recently separated from), an element to the script that set my wheels in motion and left me questioning many things—but in a good way.

I wondered if the men who work alongside our three protagonists, described early in the film as being immature and not at all above playing a joke of this sort, were the ones trolling the roof. Or perhaps Lauren’s ex, inspired by the rash of unrelated killings, was out for revenge... These are not cookie-cutter slasher movie characters. They’re three-dimensional people with lives, jobs, and relationships, which added layer after layer to the story.

The film’s main flaw has nothing to do with the production itself, but with the manner in which it was marketed. Lionsgate tossed out Kines’ original title, Claustrophobia, and released the film to DVD with a title and artwork that suggests a more traditional slasher movie. This is certainly what I expected when I picked it up. Because of this blunder, many horror fans felt cheated and so they lashed out in typical troll fashion, leaving scathing reviews on both IMDb, as well as Amazon. I find myself wondering how the film would’ve fared had Kines’ original title been left in place and if the film was released with more appropriate campaign. Then again, had this been the case, I myself might’ve passed it up.

The above mentioned DVD, which runs 1:18:47, was the source I used for the commentary. I can’t seem to find the movie on YouTube (I type in “Serial Slayer” and nothing but serial killer documentaries pop up), so you’ll have to track down the disc if you want to watch along. Unless, of course, one of the many online film-streaming services have included it in their libraries.

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