Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Saturday the 14th (1981)

I really can’t stand the word “panties.”  I get that British folks call underwear “pants,” and I assume this is the feminine variation of that, but it just bugs me.  Some words just sound wrong to me, and I avoid saying them.  The same can be said for certain foreign words that can only be properly pronounced by adopting an accent I don’t have, and I can’t decide if I sound like more of an ass pronouncing it like some haughty continental jerk or just some low grade ugly American.  Back to the point, I think the reason why I don’t care for the aforementioned word is the “-ies” at the end of it.  Maybe it makes it just a little too dainty for me.  Maybe it augments the bilabial and alveolar aspects of its pronunciation beyond my breaking point.  Either way, I usually strain to elude the word’s usage.  Daughter Debbie (Kari Michaelsen, perhaps best known for her work on the Nell Carter sitcom Gimme a Break) spends some of her onscreen time in Howard R Cohen’s Saturday the 14th in her undies, and I must say that these moments and her bathing scene are what have stuck with me all these years since this film came out (hey, I would have been about eight years old).  For better or worse, they’re still a highlight in a film that’s not as godawful as it could be but also isn’t nearly as good, either.

Vampires Waldemar (Jeffrey Tambor; is it possible the creators were making an oblique reference to Paul Naschy’s Waldemar Daninsky character, even though that one’s a werewolf not a vampire?) and Yolanda (Nancy Lee Andrews) get screwed out of the dilapidated house that they simply must buy for some nebulous reason (okay, it’s to lay their hands on the Book of Evil hidden inside), because it has been willed to John (Richard Benjamin) who immediately moves his family into it.  Will there be strange goings on?  You betcha!  Will hilarity ensue?  Well…

The movie starts off with a credit sequence that involves some of the worst animation possibly ever committed to film.  It tells the “story” of a bat (replete with cool shades) who repeatedly flies into a tree outside the house until he dies and gets dragged under the ground by a pair of hands.  Ho.  Ho.  The rest of the film’s humor teeters between not bad (but definitely not gutbusting) jokes and true groan-inducers.  For example, after hearing a scream, John suggests maybe it was an owl.  Wife Mary (Paula Prentiss) lifts the window shade, revealing a fake bat smacking into the glass and confirms that it is, indeed, an owl.  Her delivery makes this pleasantly amusing.  This joke is then driven into the ground by being repeated like a catchphrase, beating this dead horse into glue. John is constantly bewildered by things going on around the house, like who washed the dishes, and he keeps bringing this up as if repeating it will somehow make it funny.  Tambor is his usual dry, tense self, and he and Severn Darden truly make the most of the premise, delivering signature performances that stand out for how much they work (in fairness, Prentiss does a good job with what she’s given, as well).  When asked if he and Yolanda have children, Tambor retorts with, “As often as we can.”  It’s the humor that doesn’t “mug” to the audience that works best.  Son Billy (Kevin Brando, who for some reason reminded me of the kid from Troll 2) is the smartest member of the family.  After being in the dark upon their entrance to the house, the lights mysteriously come on.  John asks where Billy was, and he says he was fixing the fuse box.  The comedy is just hit and miss enough that it never elevates the film, but it never drags it down.

The film is not a parody of a specific horror franchise (as is suggested by the title) or trope.  Instead, it’s a story told with horror elements.  One of the more interesting facets of this narrative is the concept of legends coming to life.  The Book of Evil contains photographs of various creatures (who took them is an enigma never explained), and as each page is turned, the monsters in the pics disappear from the page and appear in reality.  Monsters already exist in this world, but I have to wonder if they all initially sprang from the Book’s pages?  There is some evidence of this being the case later on in the picture.  This connection between the creation of fiction and the creation of reality is intriguing, as it is in films like I, Madman, though it’s not played up here as much as it possibly could have been (then again, the Book is nothing more than a MacGuffin and a means of explaining the appearance of the monsters, so you can’t really blame the filmmakers for not going all deep on this aspect).

One of the other reasons that the film both succeeds and fails, and in fact, one of the reasons why it’s as engaging as it is, is the relationship between violence and humor.  As has been postulated for a long time, the link between Horror and Humor stems from the same primal core of human beings.  Both attempt to elicit extreme physical reactions from an audience (screaming for Horror, laughter for Humor), and both have a way of being very individualized to a specific viewer.  The way that Saturday the 14th mixes the two is odd.  There are scenes that are shot and edited to be particularly horrific, with nary a chuckle in sight.  For example, Mary is attacked by a bunch of bats in the belfry (get it?), and they draw blood, leaving her injured and shocked.  A monster is shot in the head, and it bleeds.  A rather realistic severed head is mistaken for a roast in the refrigerator.  Conversely, there are broad comedy elements that strike like a pie in the face.  A giant, three-fingered rubber glove is discovered in relation to the washing of the dishes.  The family lawyer chokes to death while talking about the curse on the house.  The film is such an oddity in the balancing (or non-balancing, if you like) of its tones, it charms more for its ambitions than for its successes.

MVT:  Darden and Tambor shine when they’re onscreen.  The monster makeups are cheap but appealing, as well.

Make or Break:  The title credits may break some viewers’ will to go on (with the film, at any rate).

Score:  6.5/10       

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