Welcome back to Notes from the Last Drive-In, where we discuss the 8th episode of season 3, featuring the cult “classic” films Sledgehammer and Things. I will be very critical of the movie selection for this episode – the films presented were amateurish, bad, and hard to watch movies. With that being said, though, they are also movies I feel I can treasure, and there is something genuinely valuable and charming about them, despite their flaws, like teeny, tiny diamond encrusted in a couple of inches of muck and dirt; unpleasant to dig through but ultimately rewarding. That’s kind of what you get with a VHS night, though.
Ultimately, it was a night of cinematic lows, but a wonderful night because of those lows. Thanks, Shudder.
Opening: The VHS Revolution and Joe Bob’s reason for VHS Night.
Bad slasher films far exceed the number of good slasher films, but Sledgehammer may be the reigning champ of awful in the genre. Written and directed by David A. Prior and shot entirely on VHS, Sledgehammer is, according to Joe Bob, said to be the first horror film produced entirely on VHS. Some argue it was 1982’s Boardinghouse, but our host suggests that because the taped film was transferred to actual film, the honor is dubious. The film stars Ted Prior, Linda McGill, John Eastman, and Jeanine Scheer, though most of the cast had minimal careers at best. Ted Prior is best known for the direct-to-VHS Deadly Prey (1988), a Rambo-knockoff, and bit-part in Surf Nazis Must Die (1987).
The film follows a group of friends who decided to spend their time partying in a house that was the site of a murder mystery a decade earlier. Before long, they participate in a prank séance that summons the vengeful ghost of a boy locked in a closet by his abusive mother shortly before her murder. Naturally, the bodies start piling up. However, the plot is a mess, and the story throws bizarre, inconsistent elements on screen. The killer has strange, arbitrary rules that are jettisoned in an instant. There is a suggestion of a Satanic ritual that serves no real purpose to confuse the overall story. Even worse, the film suggests the child who was locked in the closet went missing, yet his remains are found in that same closet ten years later during the course of the film.
The whole film has a pseudo-improvised quality to it. A story doesn’t so much unfold rather than exists as a series of moments, some of which suggest a possible narrative while others feel like ideas had on the day of the shoot, such as the infamous “food fight” sequence, which may be the most horrifying moment in the movie. Furthermore, the performances are amateurish and exaggerated. Every line read has an odd cadence that makes even simple lines sound unnatural. The killer, the largest draw of a slasher film, is a lazy trope, a masked figure with a common tool used to kill. The plastic mask makes no sense, either; perhaps if it was something the kid wore before he died, there might be a reason to include it, but it is an arbitrary and laughable choice in the film as it exists.
I could continue to criticize the film easily. However, something about it ended up being quite fun. It isn’t a good movie by any reasonable metric – yet I enjoyed my time with it. That begs the question of how we define a “good” movie, though, doesn’t it? Joe Bob’s commentary throughout the night articulates that idea to a degree. The film is not technically good, but it exists. It is the effort of someone genuinely having fun and making something, and we are partaking in that joy. It may not be in the way intended by Prior, but here we are, over 30 years after Prior’s friends made it, watching it as a community and pulling something from it. It’s not unlike The Room or that Monkey Christ incident where we see the earnestness of the intent and do find a kind of enjoyment in bearing witness to it, though the quality itself may be lacking or laughable.
Perhaps the highlight of the host segments was discussing the VHS form and aesthetic, particularly why there is something so comforting about them. Essentially, Joe Bob reasons that there is something about the “dot pattern that lulls you into a comfort zone” of familiarity. When we watch such VHS horror, we find ourselves reading them as home movies in a way, and can project people we know into the film. This is definitely part of that larger communal reading.
Among some of the other fun bits during the host segments, we learn a fun assemblage of the history of the film – in one of the more impressive feats, Prior shot it in a two-bedroom house. Yet, it ends up feeling much larger in the final film, mostly due to a baffling number of door opening sequences, I suspect. There was also a fun history of aerobic-themed horror films, which frankly sounds like a nice double-feature for season four. Of course, there was also some of that classic poking of fun at academia and horror, which I have grown immune to – it is always a fun time when Joe Bob mentions semiotics.
It is hard to rate a movie like Sledgehammer where the end product is bad, but you enjoy it. Joe Bob gave it two-and-a-half stars, even noting he was being “generous.” His rating, I feel, reflects that dichotomy of recognizing the movie is bad but still finding enjoyment from it. I guess if I had to force a food metaphor if most of the movies on The Last Drive-In are junk food, Sledgehammer is like that gas station taquito you can’t help eating once a month. So while I can only give this movie a one out of five Cthulhus when it comes to the quality of the film, it is certainly worth experiencing at least once.(1.5 / 5)
Best Line: “BLARGHARBLE.” – Chuck’s “Bill Murray” Impression
Opening: We’re about to go on a trip.
Muddy and dimly lit. Tinny and grating dubbing. Incoherent and minimal story. This is the infamous “classic” Things. But, believe it or not, The Last Drive-In can dig deeper and find an even worse movie for the back half of the night. This Canadian independent horror film, already a sign of danger, was shot direct-to-video – specifically on Super 8. Directed by Andrew Jordan, who co-wrote it with Barry J. Gillis, the movie stars Barry J. Gillis, porn star Amber Lynn, Bruce Roach, and Doug Bunston.
The film follows two friends who visit a friend’s cabin, only to uncover a horrific experiment… I think? The plot of Things is tough to discern for many reasons. Perhaps the best description of the intended plot I could find is on IMDB:
An impotent husband, driven by a fanatical desire to father children, forces his wife to undergo a dangerous experiment. The result: the birth of a multitude of monstrous THINGS.
There is a story to be found, but the film takes every opportunity it can not progress the story. First, long sequences of poorly dubbed conversations, cheese sandwich making, and wandering around darkened rooms with a flashlight. These long stretches are periodically punctuated by Halloween prop ants or some ham-fisted gore effect. Then, of course, there are the Amber Lynn sequences that have no plot relevance – where she plays a news reporter sitting in front of an A/V shelf, reading cue cards that are obviously off to the side of the camera.
The movie has so many problems that talking about them would just come off as bullying someone who cannot fight back. Such as the case with one character vanishing for well over a half-hour of the runtime because Bruce Roach couldn’t be on set. With that being said, I do feel I need to point out the absolutely hilarious dub. Much like that MST3K classic, Manos: The Hands of Fate, Things is entirely dubbed over. Unlike Manos, which the crew was unable to record audio when it was shot due to the lack of sound equipment, Things had to be dubbed over because of too much talking on set. This is important as to why Things, as bad as it is, is ultimately compelling. With that being said, the dub on Things is awful in the most hilarious way imaginable – line reads are frequently slurred, rushed through, or completely inappropriate to what is going on. Even better is when a line is spouted, which was obviously added in post, such as Don’s hilarious bitching about the weight of his friend or maple syrup references.
Joe Bob’s host segments featured a special appearance by a friend of the Drive-In and AEW superstar Chris Jericho, likely future recipient of his own dedicated land-line for Canadian horror. He’ll be the next Felissa Rose on the show, only consulting on canucks rather than mangled dicks. Jericho’s interview segment was by far the most naturalistic of the season, and his utter contempt for Things was quite funny. However, his attempts to disown the film as a product of Canada are not likely to pan out. Outside of this, most of the segments would begin with a series of questions attempting to parse the film’s meaning and what was seen on screen. Unfortunately, few of the answers were found. Some of the factoids worked their way in from the confused delirium: how exactly Amber Lynn became involved (they asked her) and who the nude woman was (a sex worker).
Joe Bob’s impassioned speech at the end of the episode is key to the night. Both films are rightly terrible, with Joe Bob giving Things a one-star rating. Things seems to be the only movie on the show so far that has earned that dubious honor. Yet, as Joe Bob says in the conclusion of the night, the evening was a celebration of the little guy. Things is a movie that exists, a tangible thing made by someone outside the traditional pipeline of film. It is far from competent, but at least someone poured their passion into it. It is easy to judge a film as bad, but it is quite another to actually make an independent film, which should be celebrated when it happens. As for my own rating from quality alone, I would only give the film one of five Cthulhus. However, much like Sledgehammer, I am glad to have seen it. (1 / 5)
Best Line: “Susan! They ate her down to the skull!” – Don, upon seeing the Things have eaten Susan down to the skull.
Haunted MTL Drive-In Totals
Of course we are going to include the standard Drive-In Totals, as shared by the Shudder Twitter account.
And as for our totals we have:
- 2 mailbag entries
- “$350,000” Budget
- The 8th dead dog of the season
- 4 breaks per movie
- 37 David Prior movies
- Gratuitous Canadian references
- “Creepy Neighbor” caps
- Tracking Fu
- Existential Questioning about what we are seeing Fu
- Yuki sighting
- Spontaneously disappearing actor
- Silver Bolo Award: SOV Horror
- Darcy Cosplay: Sledgehammeress and Blockbuster Darcy
The movie selection tonight was terrible, yet the episode is larger than the sum of its parts. I hope that VHS night becomes a thing every season as there are so many VHS films out there that could easily find their way into the show. I think a celebration of the earnest but incompetent is something we could benefit from as horror fans from time to time. With any luck, nights like this might inspire someone to make their damn movie. The average mutant carries an entire film studio on their phone these days. Perhaps a few years down the line, they will be talking about the Mutant Renaissance?
Anyway, one star movies but a five star night. I give this episode of The Last Drive-In five out of five Cthulhus.(5 / 5)
And with that, I am out. Join us on Twitter next week as we live-tweet the penultimate episode of the season. It’s gonna be a good time.
Goosebumps Say Cheese and Die
Released in 2023, Goosebumps is the latest in a line of content based on the insanely popular children’s book series with the same name. And if you’re here, I’m guessing I don’t have to tell you a lot about Goosebumps. Most horror fans are at least passingly aware of the colorful covers, dark plotlines, and surprise twist endings. Some of us even have a few of the original books lying around.
With so many good and bad versions of the original stories floating around, I was unsure how to feel about this brand-new series. I was sure, however, that I had to watch all of it. Especially with the infamous Slappy appearing so prominently in the advertising.
So, how was the first episode?
We start this episode with a flashback to 1993, and a young man named Harold Biddle. We don’t spend a lot of time with him. He comes home from school and goes right to the basement. There he starts writing some concerning notes in his journal. This is interrupted when a fire consumes the basement, killing him.
We then flash forward thirty years to the real start of our story. The Biddle house has just been inherited by a man named Nathan Bratt, played by the delightful Justin Long. He adores the place but is less than thrilled when a bunch of teens crash it for a Halloween party.
The teens end up not being thrilled either.
Now we come to our real main characters, Isaiah, Margot, Allison, and James. It is the four of them that planned the ill-fated party.
While in the house, Isaiah finds a Polaroid camera. He starts taking pictures of his friends, only to find that they don’t come out right. One of them, Allison, shows her on the ground in the woods, terrified for her life. Another shows Margot in a panic next to a snack machine.
Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that he eventually sees both of the girls in those exact situations. The real trouble comes when Lucas takes a picture of him, and it shows him on the football field, horribly injured.
All of these near-death experiences seem to be caused by the flaming spirit of Harold Biddle. And it soon becomes clear that the adults of the town likely know more than they’re willing to tell about what went down at the Biddle house thirty years ago.
For someone who grew up with the series, and is therefore of a certain age, the first scene of the episode was a lot of fun. It oozed 90’s vibe in a way that’s immediately recognizable to most, and familiar to my generation. Well, insomuch as wearing flannel and coming home to an empty house is the pinnacle of being a 90s kid.
It was also fun for the constant references to books in the original series. Blink and you missed them, but I saw the Cuckoo Clock of Doom, Haunted Mask, and Go Eat Worms. These make sense, as they each have their episode this season. But I’m sure I missed a few. Please let me know in the comments.
That was a lot of fun for someone who grew up with the series. But it wasn’t so constant and all-consuming as to distract from the story. Someone could have never read a Goosebumps book in their lives and just enjoy this episode of television.
More importantly, younger viewers can watch this and feel like it’s for them. The main characters aren’t the parents, they’re the kids. And it’s clear even in this first episode that, even if it was the grownups who caused this horror, it’s going to be the kids that fix it.
This is a series that is for kids. And that’s great. It’s introducing a whole new generation to a series in a way that feels like it can be theirs just as much as it was ours when we were kids.
What didn’t work
All that being said, the story also felt a little dumbed down. A little too predictable. There was one line that particularly irritated me in this regard. When Nora goes to see Isiah’s dad in the hospital, she just flat-out says, “The children will suffer for the sins of the fathers.”
Not only is that just a bad line, it’s also a lazy one. It’s awkward and unrealistic. People simply do not talk that way. And we frankly didn’t need this information dropped on us. It was pretty clear during the football game that at least some of the grownups in town were going to be involved with this when we saw Nora recognize what was happening to Isaiah and try to stop the game. Kids are smart. They would have figured this out by themselves.
It’s also a really tired trope. Freddy and Jason after all, are both killing young people for the sins of their parents. It was a big part of the storyline in Hide. And while I get that this might feel relevant to the next generation who are all paying for the mistakes of Boomers that Gen X and Millennials have not done enough to solve, it’s also a bit lazy. I just feel like, if this is going to be our main story, it could have been a better one.
But this isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy this episode. Overall, it was a fun start that left me with lots of questions. I’m excited to see where the rest of the season takes us.
(4 / 5)
If you’re a fan of my work, please check out my latest story, Nova, on Paper Beats World. New chapters every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
The Dead Take the A Train Review: Queer Magic and Monster Mayhem
“Julie crawled onto the table, straddling her intern, both hands around the knife. She torqued it downward, cursing. Brad shrieked harder.” -pg 57, The Dead Take the A Train by Cassandra Khaw & Richard Kadrey
The Dead Take the A Train is the first book in a duology by authors Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey. It was published in 2023 by Tor Nightfire (like the Scourge Between Stars, which I reviewed here). I was not previously familiar with Kadrey’s work, which most notably includes the Sandman Slim series. However, I was introduced to Khaw through The Salt Grows Heavy (review here), which I absolutely adored in all its twisted, gory glory. Therefore, I was thrilled to pick-up The Dead Take the A Train, which promised similar heart in a modern cosmic horror package.
In The Dead Take the A Train, a magical fixer named Julie must hunt down eldritch monstrosities threatening the lives of those around her. To do this, she has to go up against her shitty ex, a questionable angel, finance executives, and her own sobriety. When an old friend shows up, Julie is terrified to find herself making a retirement plan that doesn’t involve getting murdered by a demon.
The Dead Take the A Train is reminiscent of N.K. Jeminsin’s The City We Became, with both featuring queer characters tackling eldritch horror plots in New York City. In the same way, the novel was reminiscent of a gorier version of Dimension 20’s Unsleeping City actual play series. However, it clearly carves out a space for itself among the droves of cosmic-horror inspired love letters to New York City. For one, it is mostly unconcerned with borough beef, which (not to sound like a curmudgeonly Midwesterner), is so refreshing. The book also has a relatively novel way the world works, which helps it stay memorable.
Overall, I really liked The Dead Take the A Train. First off, the characters are fun and easy to root for. Julie is a mess in pretty much every aspect, but her bad decisions are understandable and she is charismatic. Her romance with her friend, Sarah, also serves to make Julie more likable. It helps that the villains are so easy to hate too. What’s not to hate about rich Wall Street assholes engaging in human sacrifice? Speaking of which, I liked the juxtaposition of corporate Wall Street and cosmic cultists. The actions taken were evil, but more importantly, they were just business.
The prose was flowery, but not quite as much as in The Salt Grows Heavy. So, if you struggled with Khaw’s other works for that reason this may be a much easier read. Personally, I enjoyed the prose in both. There is quite a bit of gore in The Dead Take the A Train, but I didn’t find it to be overwhelming. I think you could still enjoy the book if you don’t love gore, though maybe not if you have a weak stomach.
One of the largest issues I have with The Dead Take the A Train, is the lack of clarity in power levels of the various characters. Especially since all their forms of magic work in different ways, it is sometimes unclear the level of danger present. This can also sometimes create room for plot holes. For example, Julie has a friend who is tapped into anything and everything happening online. This is an absurdly powerful ability (and is used as such). But there were moments where the main conflict probably could have been avoided or solved using that power. It also felt odd that no one else in this thriving magic community felt strongly about stopping a world-ending catastrophe. Because of this, the magic underground of NYC could feel smaller than I think was intended.
Having been familiar with Khaw’s work previously, The Dead Take the A Train clearly feels like a mix of Khaw’s style with someone else’s. This could be a boon or a hindrance, depending on your view of Khaw’s distinct prose and storytelling. Either way, if you are interested in learning more about the process or the authors, check out the interview they did for SFF Addicts Podcast!
I recommend The Dead Take the A Train, especially for those who are fans of modern urban eldritch horror. The book is an even bigger steal if you are looking for danger, gore, and queer characters. Check it out! And keep your eyes peeled for the next book in this duology.
Dolores Roach, A Fillet of Left Cheek
The second season of Dolores Roach started with a bang. The first episode was dark, gristly and in a strange way whimsical. It certainly brought to light new elements of the character.
We begin our story with Dolores somewhere, talking to someone. I’d like to be more specific, but that’s all we know right now.
She tells this unknown person about her flight from Empanadas Loco. How Jeremiah killed Luis. How she, whether she meant to or not, killed Jeremiah. How she then set the building on fire by blowing up the fryer in the kitchen.
Scared and alone, Dolores then ran for the underground. Dragging her purple massage table she runs into a hole in a subway track and finds herself in a whole different world.
Almost at once, she finds a place where someone is living. There’s a hot plate, a kettle and several packets of ramen. Even better, everything has Jeremiah’s name on it, literally written on it. Exhausted and alone, Dolores makes herself a cup of ramen and goes to sleep on her massage table.
She’s woken sometime later by a small man named Donald. He knows her because he knew Jeremiah. Dolores proceeds to tell him an abridged version of events that led up to Jeremiah’s death. And by abridged, I mean she blamed Luis for everything, throwing him under the bus so hard I’m surprised she didn’t pull something.
Donald seems inclined to help Dolores. He tells her that if anyone messes with her she should go further down, down a stairwell that he points out for her.
Dolores thanks him, then tries to go back to sleep. She’s soon woken again by a young woman collecting Jeremiah’s things.
While Dolores has an issue with this, she’s willing to let it go. Until that is, this woman tries to take her table. Then, Dolores does what she does best. Because one thing is for sure. Dolores is going to take care of herself.
One thing I love about this series so far is that our main character, Dolores, is crazy. And hearing her rationalize her crazy is both terrifying and fascinating. I hate/love how sweet and soothing she can be. Even with the rat that she killed in this episode. She cooed at it, encouraging it to come to her, even calling it a subway raccoon.
Then she killed it and started crying.
I also love the underground community. It’s both horrific and whimsical. It reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, which is full of worlds most people don’t see but are all around us. It’s also horrific because there are so many people that our society has failed, that they’ve gathered underground and made their own little society. That’s not great. There just shouldn’t be that many people who need homes.
What didn’t work
Unfortunately, this episode did have two major flaws. And the first one is a personal pet peeve of mine.
In the last episode of season one, certain things were established. Dolores said she was carefully rationing her weed. She said she didn’t have anything to eat since coming down to the tunnels. She still had her massage table. This episode rewrote a lot of that.
Frankly, I hate when stories do that. It may or not make a difference to the story. It just strikes me as poor planning and lazy writing. This show has proven it’s capable of doing better.
All things considered, I thought this was a great start to the season. I’m invested in the story, curious about the new characters, and worried about the well-being of everyone Dolores comes in contact with. And that’s all as it should be.(3.5 / 5)
By the way, if you like my writing, you might want to check out my latest sci-fi horror story, Nova. It’ll be released episodically on my site, Paper Beats World, starting February 5th.