Friday, December 15, 2017

Reviews: The Zodiac Killer; Another Son of Sam

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2017
Images from the Internet

The Zodiac Killer
Directed by Tom Hanson
AGFA / Something Weird Video / MVD Visual
87 minutes, 1971 / 2017

This until-recently-lost film is kind of infamous in the true story crimes micro-budget genre. Director Tom Hanson did not set out to either warn, to give information to the public about a real-life serial killer who besot California in the mostly late 1960s into the very early 1970s, or to make a profit. His purpose was to either catch the Killer at the premiere if he showed up. Man, that’s ballsy!

While it didn’t work since the Zodiac Killer (ZK) was never found, it did leave us this wonderfully bizarre and cheesy film that strangely is actually more entertaining than the bio-pic Zodiac (2007), which was completed with a budget in the millions, and starred A-listers such as Jake Gyllenhaal. When this film was released, though, the killing was still going on, which gives a chilling aspect to it.

Hal Reed
We meet two characters in San Francisco, a mailman named Jerry (Hal Reed, d. 2010) and a balding ladies’ man, Grover (Bob Jones), who is a delivery truck driver. These two guys, as are most of the (non-victim) men portrayed, are macho misogynist morons who have a deep-seated hatred of women, often casually using terms like “dumb broad” and, of course, “bitch.” Sadly, dudes like these who have a fanatical distaste for women and yet seek some kind of need for their attention are still a dime a dozen (hey, one is even the president of the United States). At one point, one older guy comments that he likes women who are “plump, and juicy…and dumb,” and another shouts at a waitress ex-girlfriend (Norma Michaels), “I’m not in the habit of having my broads walk out on me.”

But the men in the story aren’t the only ones here that get a harsh brushstroke, as many of the women come across as man-hungry; usually the more attractive and least dressed, the higher the level of desperation. For example, a woman in a bikini practically drags a character into a random and spontaneous –off-camera – sex act. Another is how many women throw themselves after the obviously bewigged Grover, even though they act surprised and mean-girlish when the toup is blown.

Bob Jones
While the story is occasionally silly – and yet still entertaining – there is actually an interesting mixture of case file reality stirred with unsubstantiated (i.e., made up) killings. But the Zodiac, who is linked to about a dozen known killings, claimed in a letter to have 37 victims at one point. This gives quite the leeway for the story to imagine possibilities.

The identity of the ZK does not come as a surprise in this story, as even though masked, the body type is quite easy to spot. Fortunately, it’s not long before the film makes it clear, so it can get on with the action at hand, and there is a lot of it. The body count is quite high here, even if the caliber of acting is not. There is a lot of hand-wringing type behavior and a lot of angry shouting with face twisting. But that is part of what is enjoyable, too.

We find out before long that ZK is completely looney (here’s one part I assume that is supposed to anger the real Zodiac), believing that those he kills are enslaved to him in a nearly ritualistic, messiah complex way. This is clear in a monologue where he refers to himself as “The Supreme Zodiac.”

A nice touch, on a second viewing, is seeing some things I hadn’t noticed before, such as the link to one of the first killings, and especially of the red herrings, including the motivation for the second couple-killing, which I missed on the first run through. It’s just a few smart touches in a largely ham-fisted script. As filmmaking goes though, despite the heavy-handed story and acting, it is shot quite nicely, and there is a decent level of blood. A stabbing scene is especially effective for its budget and timeframe. This is taken from the last remaining full 35mm print left, which had been blown up from 16mm to show in theaters. What drove me most crazy though is that throughout, ZK never wears gloves and yet touches everything that would certainly be tested for prints. Funny thing is, this bothered me more than the lack of acting chops.

Another amusing thing is that even back then, there is the “Indie Rule of Cameos,” with a brief (probably one day of shooting) appearance by Doodles Weaver (who is credited as Doddles Weaver; d. 1983), as an unlikeable older man.

Towards the end, there is an attempt to “humanize” the ZK just a bit with his having issues about… well, I’m not going to say, but this is most likely another attempt to goad the real Killer. The inner monologue we hear towards the end is most likely meant to do the same.

As with many Blu-rays, there is a sea of extras, which I will unbox, out of sequence. First, there is a series of period-piece trailers that revolve around “Tabloid-Horror Trailers” (such as 1970’s Carnival of Blood, starring Burt Young). There is a 4-minute featurette called “Let’s Get This Guy: The Origin of The Zodiac Killer” (2017), which features interviews with director (and owner of a chain of pizza stores) Tom Hanson and producer Manny Nedwick, who briefly discuss how the motivation for the film came about and its aftermath. This should not be confused with the upcoming “Making Of” documentary called Zodiac Man: The True Story of the Man Who Made a Movie to Catch a Killer, which is due out in 2018 (and will undoubtedly be included on a future release of this film – or vice versa).

Hanson and Nedwick, along with members of “the AGFA Team” show up again in the commentary track. Sadly, Jim Vraney could not be on here since the Something Weird Video (SWV) founder passed away in 2014. Two members of AGFA spend the first 10 interesting (pun not intended) minutes describing their attraction to the SWV brand, and how they partnered with the estate to work on this release. Then they are joined by Hanson and Nedwick (one character in an early part of the film is named for him) who describe working on the film. Despite Hanson’s bad memory, thanks to some careful questioning by the curators, many interesting facts come out about the making of the film. It’s worth the view.

Other extras are that both a Blu-ray and DVD version of, well, everything, in included, and that there is a very nice booklet containing production credits and a print interview with Hanson. The last extra is an entire second film called, Another Son of Sam, reviewed below.

Another Son of Sam
Written, produced, edited and directed by Dave Adams
67 minutes, 1977
I don’t tell people this very often, but I went to high school with the Son of Sam’s final victim, Stacy Moskowitz. I didn’t really know her other than passing her in the hall, as she was in an entirely different social scene than mine (i.e., she was “popular,” and I didn’t have a “group”). It was still a shock, though.

This was filmed just after the Son of Sam reign of terror (but pre-trial) in New York City, though it was shot around Charlotte, NC. If you ask me, despite the title cards listing some then-recent serial killers and their body counts before the opening credits, this tale of a murderer on the loose is not really connected in any way to the infamous .44 Caliber Killer, but rather its title is intended to be a good way to grab an audience, in the same way unconnected movies are given “sequel” names (e.g., House II: The Second Story [sic] in 1987). For the record, its shooting title was Hostages.
To be fair and more accurate, the basic premise is actually closer to Halloween (1978) than anything else, as a silent and deranged man, Harvey, escapes from an insane asylum and then goes on a killing spree. When he holes up in a college, the body count rises. There are a lot of his POV shots, peeking from behind bushes, attacking whoever comes across his path. When one is his psychologist, Dr. Daisy Ellis (Cynthia Stewart), her husband, copper Lt. Claude Setzer (Russ Dubuc) leads the entire police force out on the manhunt.

This is total psychotronic in that it’s a really cheesy film with terrible acting and a not-that-brilliant screenplay, but it is definitely an attention-keeper in its own bizarre way, if you’re into that kind of thing – which I am. There are a lot of meaningless and misleading – yet effective – jump scares.

One of the more intriguing aspects may actually be unintentional: it’s obvious that this print has been through hell over the years, with discoloration and other issues. Through the film, especially in early shots, there are a bunch of freeze frames; it could be that it was stylistic, but I’m guessing more likely the film was damaged so the images were eaten away but the soundtrack was okay. I’m hoping I’m wrong because it’s one of my favorite things about the film.

Some other interesting little bits about the film: (1) There’s some blood, but most of it is seen after the assaults; with one big exception, there’s very little actual violence seen; (2) most of the time we see Harvey, it’s pretty much the same shot of his face from above the mouth up, with shadowy lighting and his caterpillar eyebrows; (3) great period clothing on the cast; and (4) there is a scene filmed at the Treehouse Lounge nightclub (now called the Treehouse Whiskey and Fork) with Tampa Bay-based singer Johnny Charro doing his Elvis-meets-Humperdinck regional hit, “Never Said Goodbye” (which is also heard on a radio station in the film, and again with the end credits).

This is Adams’ only IMDB film credit, and relatively speaking, for the technology and the time period, it’s quite good, in a so-bad-it’s-good way. Sure, it drags a bit here and there, but mostly it’s good fun. If you’re reading this, odds are you understand what you’re getting when the word psychotronic is employed as a descriptor. All y’all enjoy!

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