At first glance 1976’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown neatly fills the ‘mysterious masked killer’ gap in between 1974’s Black Christmas and 1978’s Halloween in the slasher genre. However there is some debate to be had whether The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a slasher film or not. I’ve seen folks refer to it more of crime drama, or a mystery. Maybe these people don’t like the slasher label, and feel it demeans the film in some way? It certainly has many of the hallmarks; the aforementioned masked killer, pretty young victims, bumbling cops, inventive deaths, a tension filled chase through the woods, spiky musical score and so on. It also has the genuinely unsettling fact that it is based on a true crime that was never solved. And not in the sense that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was very loosely based on the crimes of Ed Gein. In 1946 the town of Texarkana was terrified by a series of five murders, of mostly young lovers, who were killed by a hooded man who became known as the Phantom Killer. He was never caught. That isn’t to say that the film changed nothing of the original case, and the fact that at the beginning the film states that ‘only names have been changed’ is clearly untrue (death by trombone is far too ridiculous to have actually happened for a start. Yeah, there’s a death by actual trombone in the film). But the fact that the base story here was reality for the residents of Texarkana, and not really that long ago either, is fairly chilling, with a veneer of exploitation on behalf of the film makers – Although seeing as Texarkana townsfolk appeared in the film as extras, they didn’t see it as malicious intent on behalf on the film makers to exploit their suffering. The cops who investigated the real case however, have more cause to be annoyed by their portrayal in the film. We’ll get to that later, let’s look at the film itself first.
Yesterday the world of horror cinema lost Anthony Hinds, producer of some of Hammer Horrors greatest films, including The Quatermass Xperiment, Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula and Hound of the Baskervilles. Basically in some way we have him to thank for bringing both the pure, unadulterated joy that is Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, (whether together or apart) to the public consciousness, an act of greatness that for which we should be eternally grateful. And yet… When I first saw news of his death on (where else?) Twitter, I popped off to the BBC News website to confirm it. No mention there. Next stop, The Guardian. Nothing. Eventually Twitter confirmed it for me, via the Hammer Horror account. Today, when I checked those same websites again, plus The Telegraph website (The Times is behind a pay wall and there’s no way on earth I’m giving The fucking Daily Mail any clicks) there was still no reference to it (the print editions may have done, but I haven’t seen them). I thought this was sad.
I’m not even entirely sure why. Maybe because I think someone who had a hand in many films I love deserved more notice on his passing. Maybe because the old Hammer Films are now though of as so old and passe they don’t merit much spotlight in the media, let alone the people who were involved in making them. Most likely I’m being weirdly overly sensitive about it (to be honest I don’t even know *that* much about Anthony Hinds, and at 91 years, he had a bloody good innings), but for some reason it struck a chord with me (I had no such feelings when Jimmy Sangster died in 2011, although of course I found it sad news). After I had given myself a metaphorical kick in the head I realised that feeling vaguely upset about something like the lack of media attention was silly and that if I wanted to see a list of Anthony Hind’s achievements I could write about them myself. And even if no one reads this (likely), I will have done my own (unimportant but possibly cathartic in some bizarre way) remembrance for the man.
Anthony Hinds (who was the son of William Hinds, the founder of Hammer Films) essentially kick started Hammer’s direction into focusing mainly on horror in 1953 when the company bought the rights to The Quartermass Experiment from the BBC, after they had produced a television version. In 1955 The Quartermass Xperiment was released and was a huge success (it also didn’t shy away from the new ‘X’ film certificate that other studios were wary of, beginning the Hammer trend of occasional, but always entertaining, lurid advertising). With the Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, the Hammer trademark of gothic horror was well and truly stamped. Hinds had enough faith in Jimmy Sangster’s script to give it a bigger budget and to stand up to the BBFC when they expressed dismay with it’s “horror and gruesome detail”, refusing to comprise the script’s content. Hinds can also be credited with Hammer’s use of country houses for filming, saving on set building costs. Curse of Frankenstein (directed by Terrence Fisher) was filmed at the famous Bray Studios House, in full colour. The result is a terrific film and the beginning of the aforementioned Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing Duo of Awesomeness. The dream team of Sangster, Hinds, Fisher, Cushing and Lee reunited just a year later for Dracula; which like Curse of Frankenstein before it, was vastly changed from the original source material. Anthony Hinds continued to show his flair for capturing public interest by requesting press that while in costume Christopher Lee should only be photographed from the back, in order to preserve the surprise for cinema goers when he was revealed. “We feel it might spoil the fun for millions of film goers if they see what Dracula looks like before they take their seats in a cinema”, he stated. Such tactics paid off and the film was a huge success, and still considered a classic today, often being shown in independent cinemas at Halloween. Once these films had thrashed out the classic Hammer formula between them, the studio for a while became wildly prolific, putting out films at a rapid rate and redefining the horror genre (there really is nothing like the classic Hammer blood, thick and vivid as poster paint and fully marvellous).
Under the name John Elder, Anthony Hinds also displayed a talent for screen writing; penning Phantom of the Opera, The Reptile and Taste The Blood Of Dracula among others. Taking on these dual roles of producing and writing gave Hinds a unique insight into the world of film production, for which he had an unfailing passion. While most producers worry about spending as little as possible even if it meant releasing an inferior product, Hinds was all about making the very most of what you’ve got. Having to keep an ever watchful eye on the budget did not mean corners could be cut and that folk could slack off because it was “just a horror film”. Every Hammer film looked polished and loved, and some of this must to due to the care and attention Hinds gave these films, an attitude one imagines he passed to all that he worked with.
Hammer Films have been tentatively dipping it’s toes back into the horror waters, since it rose from the dead in 2007, having made Let Me In in 2010, Wake Wood and The Resident in 2011 and The Women In Black in 2012. The Women In Black, starring Daniel Radcliffe as the world’s least convincing widower, was a massive hit, it also returned Hammer to it’s classic roots; period costumes, isolated locations, pitch fork wielding locals, and a running sense of dread. (Although I admit the stage show was much scarier, having seen it earlier in the year. First time ever in the theatre where people screamed in fear. And I’ve seen the musical Cats five times). One can only hope that the new show runners at Hammer have the passion, insight and joie de vivre that Anthony Hinds had for the company and they will continue his legacy, scaring audiences for many more years to come.
Anthony Hinds. 1922-2013. Thank you for the chills and thrills good sir. R.I.P
Apologies to anyone who has been waited with baited breath for my conclusion of the haunted house trio I have recently been looking at, I have been suffering a serious block with writing that for some reason so in penance I am offering in the meantime a (probably) sub-par review of a (definitely) sub-par film. You’re welcome internet. But it is a film with a wholly pointless Christian Slater sub-plot, if by chance that pushes your buttons. Today’s film, Playback, is a weird mish-mash of various horror sub-genres; found footage, slasher, demonic possession, evil technology and historical reinvention. Do any of these attempts at scares hit their targets? Let’s find out shall we? Spoilers to follow.
This Film Is So Nothing, There Isn’t Even Anything To Make Fun Of On The Poster.
October 21 1994 – We open of a hell of a lot of carnage. Some young psycho has butchered an entire family, except for a mother and her baby. He’s fondly recording his exploits on a video camera. Seems he wants the baby for something, he films the baby in its cot, and has the camera hooked up to a TV in the basement, he places his hand on the image of the baby on the TV and his energy transfers to the baby, intercutting all the while with some old timey looking Victorian black and white photographs, I think. There’s lots of hyper editing; note to film-makers- it doesn’t make things scary and tense, it makes it hard to make out what is fucking going on, and only gives the audience a heightened sense of annoyance. Weird energy transfer complete, he tries to take the baby, but the mother tries to stop him (not sure why he didn’t kill the mother, he has no qualms about doing the rest of the family in, maybe just so she could get her boobs out, which she does). As he goes to leave the police show up, he lowers the baby and the video camera to the ground, but the mother stabs him, he stabs the mother, they both die. The baby is the only survivor.
Present day, and a group of teens (for that read: actors in their mid to late 20s) are filming a reconstruction of the crime for their journalism class. There’s director guy (Julian), his girlfriend (Riley), a joker guy (Nate), a sassy sister (Brianna) and a prissy sister (DeeDee). And that’s the full BINGO on stock horror characters. Wonder which one is the baby from the opening. Oh dear, I hope the film makers weren’t saving that up for a big twist. To celebrate them doing such an awesome job of recreating a terrible local tragedy for school they are having a party tonight. Julian wants to invite Quinn, local weirdo and wearer of all black, who loaned them some equipment. Brianna isn’t keen because he’s, like, such a freak, and this is going to be one of those classy parties where they all sit around and talk about vibrators. Daring. Oh, did I say ‘daring’? I meant to say dull.
Who Knew James Arthur Appeared In Shit Horror Films Before Wining X Factor?
Julian returns the equipment to Quinn, and invites him to the party anyway. He also asks him to check the TV station where he works for any footage of the original Diehl murder case. Quinn is a man of few words and most of them are badly delivered. He’s also quite the pervert, as he has cameras set up in the girl’s locker room and films them undressing and that. Luckily it’s one of those American high schools where everyone is slim and good looking and wears matching underwear. In between these savoury activities, he also checks out the information Julian wanted on the Diehl murder case – turns out the killer was part of the family, however there is no mention of the baby on the news report.
Quinn was probably better off not going to the party, as it looks dreadful. I’m always bitching about parties in the these films, I swear I’m not a fun hater, it’s just shot the same way all these parties are shot; obnoxious music, dancing girls in bras, dudes smoking a joint, someone jumps in the pool, all edited super-fast and basically like no party that anyone outside a screenwriter’s imagination has ever attended.
Quinn, meanwhile, finds the ‘raw footage’ of the Diehl murder report, and pops it in to take a look. He sees footage of the aftermath, which seems to have been recorded on the killer’s camera, shouldn’t that have been put in an evidence bag right away, not used by police officers titting about hoping to get one of their colleagues slipping in a pool of blood so they can out it on YouTube? We see the killer’s body being wheeled away, and as the camera focuses on it the footage goes screwy and again intercuts with old black and white footage we saw at the beginning. The machine eats the tape. Oh noes, he’s going to have to do that trick with the pencil we all had to do back in the day when tapes went funny. He fixes the tape and tries to watch it again, at the point where the killer’s body is wheeled up to the ambulance, he lunges at the camera and screams, and I swear this is what it sounds like he’s saying; ‘Khannnnnnnnn’, in style of William Shatner. Quinn is knocked backwards off his chair by the sheer force of the confusion in wondering where The Wrath of Khan fits in to all this, he convulses for a bit then passes out. After he recovers he goes to see Christian Slater. As you do. Slater plays a cop, Frank Lyons, who is the purchaser of the covert locker-room footage Quinn recorded earlier. Nice.
Quinn then swings on by the party, where the teens are discussing orgasms and other important topics of the day. He’s bought Brianna, the birthday girl, a Blu-ray player, she’s ungrateful and standoffish. But Brianna, Quinn likes to huff lighter fluid from a rag and install hidden cameras in girl’s stuffed animals, so I can’t see why you don’t think he wouldn’t be a great catch. Christian Slater enjoys his ill-gotten locker room footage, Quinn retreats to his van to enjoy his ill-gotten Brianna footage. What a lovely duo.
The next day Julian asks his mother about helping him with his film project. She isn’t keen, and warns him off investigating any further. The theme of the project is things that have changed the community; ‘it didn’t change the community; it changed lives’ says Mom. I guess this is meant to be a heavy handed message about becoming desensitized to the world around us. And that Julian is the baby from the beginning, calling it now. Back at the TV station, Quinn’s boss is not happy at the state his employee left the place in. In an extreme case of over reaction to a little constructive criticism, Quinn violently kills him, via pushing his eye through a camera lens so it comes out the other side. If this is meant to be a little nod to Peeping Tom, all it’s doing is reminding me what a fantastic film Peeping Tom is, and that I could be watching that right now instead of Playback. Don’t think the makers of this film will be ostracised from society like the director, Michael Powell, of Peeping Tom was, but maybe they should be.
To Be Absolutely Fair, It Is A Bit Of A Shit Tip.
At school, Julian and Riley look over the information that Quinn got them from the station. Harlan Diehl, the killer, was adopted when he was 4. Riley, looking at the photograph of the house where the family lived, recognises it and they go to check it out. While driving there Julian says his mother told him the building that been levelled. Which would be the sensible option wouldn’t it? If all these creepy murder houses were just demolished after the terrible event murder rates in films would drop by half. ‘Why would my Mom lie about it?’ wonders the gormless boy; because you’re the baby from the beginning Julian, do keep up.
I’m Sure I’ve Seen This Guy Playing Teenagers In Films For The Last 10 Years.
The place does indeed still stand, in all its creepy glory. Julian is gutted they didn’t get to film in it. He does now though, with his iPhone. Christ people who film everything on their iPhones fuck me right off. I bet he takes photos of his dinners and puts them on Instagram as well. They investigate the house further, until they stumble across a room that was once clearly a nursery, except no children were mentioned in the news report. Julian’s mum turns up and rumbles them. She sends Riley home, and gives Julian a talking to; she found him by tracking him on his phone (see, everyone who keeping bugging me about it, this is why I don’t what a shitty IPhone/Smart Phone/What the fuck ever, it’s how The Man/Murdoch/The Queen keeps an eye on your nefarious doings), she warns him off the project. The Diehl murder house is clearly the place to see and be seen today though as the possessed Quinn also rocks up to the place.
Back at school, Julian and Riley investigate further; Harlan’s great, great Grandfather was Louis Le Prince, inventor of the first ever video camera (I thought that happened in Ripper Street), they see a still of the first ever video footage, it is the same that keeps cutting in the murder camera. There is no mention of the baby anywhere, despite the fact that one of the family members is clearly pregnant in the (apparently) only photo that exists of them. Surely a case such as the Diehl murder case would have be national news, possibly even international? But only the two bit TV station in their tiny town seems to have any record of it. We see them researching Louis Le Prince using the internet; surely there would be at least a Wikipedia page for the Diehl family?
Ugh, Hipster Glasses. Now I Really Want Her To Die.
Julian has lost his phone, he rings himself, and Quinn answers at the murder house. Surely he knows that’s where he last had his phone? Bloody teenagers. He doesn’t seem surprised that Quinn has it, and arranges to go pick it up. Quinn is making himself right at home in the basement of the murder house, coughing up black blood and everything. He also seems to be moulding like a good cheese. Julian retrieves his phone from Quinn, asking no questions about how he came to have it, and what the hell has happened to Quinn’s face, journalism student, no? Julian goes to work at the video shop, and be still my heart it appears they actually stock videos – I need the address to this place and a membership card immediately if not sooner. He asks his colleague about Louis Le Prince; he is the devil apparently, due to his name. The old legend of photographs capturing your soul have truth to them – Le Prince had a son, Adolph (unlucky mate), and he used the film to impose his evil soul on his son, an unpleasant hereditary condition that has been passed on through the generations. Julian suddenly gets his Scully on and is sceptical about all this. His co-worker shows him Le Prince’s film, a whole 2 seconds of people walking, like a mini Lord of the Rings. All the people who appeared on the film died shortly after.
Quinn goes to see Frank Lyons. He wants the video tapes from the murder case; the videos of Harlan spying on his sister. What is with it and voyeuristic perverts in the town? Julian’s video store must rent out Peeping Tom by the shed load. Frank refuses to help him, which seems a bit short sighted, considering how much dirt Quinn has on him. Brianna, who was earlier possessed by Quinn’s evil/had the evil transferred to her/ it’s not really clear and who really cares/by the way, this film is really rubbish is on her way to a rock concert with Nate. She starts vomiting the same black blood as Quinn and stabs Nate to death with a broken CD.
Julian’s mother is head of the local police; she summons Frank and tells him Nate has been reported missing by his mother and to go to the school to talk to his friends. Frank goes to the school and summons the innocent DeeDee into his car for a ‘chat’. Slater turns the sinister quota up to 11 here. I think he’s trying to flirt with her. Grim. Quinn has no more use for Brianna and slices her throat, Frank rings him in a panic, he’s desperate for footage of DeeDee now, and he’ll try and get the tapes for Quinn. Christ this is an unsympathetic bunch of people. Oh and now DeeDee gets possessed. Quinn gets all these other folk to do his dirty work for him. Lazy evil bastard. He can’t want whatever he wants that badly if he’s not prepared to do any of the heavy lifting himself lest he break a nail.
That Right There, Is The Patented Look Of All Sex Pests Everywhere.
Frank already has the tapes that Quinn wants – and is in the process of enjoying them when DeeDee comes to call. She’s all sexy and possessed now, with legs about 7ft long, she’s very flirty, in that dead eyed possessed way, suddenly Frank isn’t at all keen, guess he just likes to watch, not participate. Quinn kidnaps Riley from in front of the school with lots of witnesses about, which was bright. He rings DeeDee, now straddling Frank and writhing around, and tells her to leave. Frank shouts down the phone that he wants her to stay; he has the tapes Quinn wants. Quinn goes to Frank’s house and shoots him, then DeeDee, and takes the tapes. So what the fuck was the point of the Christian Slater character? So we could see lots of lovingly shot film of girls in their knickers? So the film makers could prattle on about their film ‘starring’ established actor Christian Slater when he’s in it for a grand total of about 12 minutes? Just so we could have a couple of extra kill scenes? I’m going to go with the knickers theory myself.
Julian, meanwhile, is still proving himself to be possibly the most bland person on the planet. He’s been trying to track down the television news reporter who reported on the Diehl killings back in the day, and his inquiries have led him to some kind of hospice type place, where Mike the reporter now resides. Julian questions him about the baby. No one knows the motive for the murders, but the baby was the trigger. Harlan raped his sister and she got pregnant, the parents didn’t want anyone to know so they put the baby up for adoption. Quality parenting there like. The baby was adopted by a lovely lady police officer, and the penny finally drops for Julian. Although Mike said he couldn’t find out much about the baby, he seems to know plenty to me. It’s almost like he’s mere exposition masquerading as a character, only there to provide all the information needed in the build-up to the final act of the film. Freaked out, Julian tries calling Riley, leaving possibly the most garbled voice mail in history.
Quinn has been reviewing the tapes and has come to the same conclusion, that Julian is the baby. Julian heads for home to question his Mum but she isn’t there, Quinn’s van pulls up, Julian goes outside to investigate, he hears noises coming from the van, and opens the door to reveal Riley tied up. Quinn jumps Julian from behind and everything fades to black. Julian comes to trussed to a chair and with a video camera pointing at him. They are in the murder house. Quinn has Riley in the basement and she is going to be part of destiny so she shouldn’t be afraid. Destiny eh? Well that’s alright then.
Julian’s mother, concerned, rings his phone. Quinn answers, goes on about the truth for a bit then hangs up. Good thing she’s paranoid and has GPS installed on his phone right? Julian tries to bit through electrical tape and then screams for a bit. Quinn (who’s got full on leprosy by now) tries to transfer the evil to Julian. But the electric goes out. Quinn goes to check it out; Riley manages to free herself while he gets the power going again. Riley makes her way up stairs to the baby’s room, where Julian is, and tries to free him. Yeah, Quinn’s recording you; he’s going to figure out pretty quickly what is happening.
The Demonic Possession Was Going Great Until He Realised He’d Left The Lens Cap On.
They escape, and flee the house, with Quinn in hot pursuit. It’s one of those chase scenes where they run full pelt, he walks but he still catches up with them. What works for Jason Voorhees/ Michael Myers does not work for you Playback. They run into a corn field. Julian’s mum turns up, calling for her son. Quinn goes to go and take care of her, which brings Julian and Riley out of hiding. Quinn shoots the mum, and when Julian goes to her aid, Quinn tackles him out of nowhere. Come on Julian, his face is basically falling off; it should be easy to kick his arse. Nope, even with the help of Riley Quinn bests them yet again, and tries to finish the ritual, but the camera is broken, so Quinn tries to use his phone. Julian’s mum isn’t dead, hooray, and she shoots Quinn loads of times in the chest, should always go for the face pet. And so this is proved, as Quinn uses the last of his strength to record his own face.
At the hospital, while watching the news about the murders on the TV, Julian gets a video message on his phone, its Quinn’s last recording, so I guess Quinn gets his soul after all? And when the fuck did Quinn send the message then? If it had been at the time, Julian would have got the message straightaway, and I’m guessing currently Quinn is in the morgue, with limited access to mobile phone technology.
I hope that last question didn’t believe you to lead that I care about the answer. Because I really don’t. Or about this film as a whole, because sweet crispy Christ it was a chore to sit through. The plot tried to use too many horror tropes and used them badly; ending up in a nonsensical mess that got too bogged down in its own ridiculous mythology and couldn’t pull itself out of the quagmire to make sense of what it was doing. The idea of camera/video capturing the souls of those who view them is an old piece of folk law and not in itself a bad basis for a horror film, but there was no need to chuck all these other ideas into the blender as well, that’s how you end up with an over-egged, over-bloated and very dull pudding. Performances were all par for the course of this sort of film. Julian was too bland to really root for, Quinn’s ‘possession’ shtick was too boring to be scared of and Frank was utterly pointless, and despite the description for the film stating that HE would be doing all the investigating into the Diehl tragedy, we see him to no such thing. He perves. He dies. I sigh in long suffering annoyance with a slight edge of despair at Slater’s career decline. Everyone else is varying degrees of unlikeable cannon fodder. If the film makers had stuck with one angle such as cameras capturing the soul, as long they made it less derivative of The Ring, this could have been a lot more watchable. As it stands, I couldn’t even recommend it to Slater completists.
Bah, that review wasn’t very good. I really do feel bad that I am publishing something I know isn’t great and I hate doing it but it’s been a while since I posted and I wanted to get *something* up. I fear I have lost my edge, I’m going to have to watch something really, really teeth grindingly terrible next time. It may be slightly worrying that I seem to be at my best, writing wise, when I watched something that make me really angry. Playback didn’t make me feel anything, I could barely muster the energy to be bored. But first, I need to get a mental sledge hammer and smash through the blockage that preventing me from finishing my haunted house films conclusion and fucking well get on with that. Which is what I am going to try and do now. I’ll need a hefty dose of luck and maybe some whisky. See you on the other side.