Thursday, March 05, 2009

TWISTED NIGHTMARE at the Harris (December 1988)

I caught this movie at the Harris Theatre on 42nd Street, where it was co-billed with HELLRAISER II. It should be out on video soon, but I don’t think I could even recommend it as a cheap rental. I wouldn’t doubt it if someone told me that it had been written (or even made) seven or eight years ago, for it has a lot in common with the slasher movies of the early ‘80s. Like several of those, TWISTED NIGHTMARE takes place at a summer camp, an overused setting for this type of film.

A bunch of old high school friends are invited back to Camp Paradise, where they used to visit every year after their graduation. No one seems to know why they’ve been reunited, considering their fun-filled weekends in the wilderness had stopped several years earlier. Laura knows though. Her retarded brother burned to death one year, and that’s why the visits to the camp had been called off. Slaughter-time arrives soon enough as the campers are knocked off in typically gruesome ways by a growling monster. It seems that the camp was built right on top of haunted land, where a crazy Indian once murdered his family and himself. Char-broiled Matthew has returned, and is being instructed by his crazy sister Laura to rip up everyone in sight.

TWISTED NIGHTMARE is a formula kill-fest with blood and nudity galore, awful acting, and absolutely no surprises.

(Originally printed in Temple of Schlock #15, January 1989)

(Above: The Harris in 1993)

(Below: The same building today)

(Two photos above from the Cinema Treasures website)

Chris says: I reprinted this review because it sort of epitomizes what was wrong with Temple of Schlock. Paul and I sometimes tried to run the fanzine like it was a daily tabloid, meaning one of our main concerns was “scooping” the other ‘zines by being the first to cover certain films, or at least getting the coverage into the hands of our readers while the films were still in theaters or on the new release shelf. As a result, our reviews would end up being hastily written and half comprised of spoiler-filled plot descriptions, with no real critical insight. What surprises me now, twenty years later, is that I was so concerned about getting this review written quickly and the issue mailed out to our subscribers that I didn’t even document the actual experience of seeing TWISTED NIGHTMARE at the Harris. Today I can’t remember a single moment in the movie, but a couple of the things I witnessed that evening will never be forgotten.

I had spent the whole day in Times Square, hitting my usual stops (RKO Video, the Beta Only Store, the Drama Bookshop) and drifting from one sleazepit to another. First up was a bloody Australian thriller called VICIOUS!, showing exclusively at the West Side Cinema twin, a roachtrap basement porno house that was taking a half-assed shot at legitimacy. Instead of porn they were running Troma crapola and whatever schlock Sony Video had advertised in the trades as “straight from theatrical release” and was therefore contractually obligated to play in at least one theater for one week under their short-lived SVS Films banner. Despite the change in programming, the West Side still reeked of the same industrial strength cleanser that was used in the nastiest Times Square sex emporiums. The concession stand was undergoing renovations, and buzzsaws screeched and whined in the lobby for the entire running time, causing the only other ticket holder in the auditorium to storm out about 10 minutes into the movie, presumably to complain and demand his money back. I don’t remember much about VICIOUS!, but I described it in the pages of T.O.S. as “a twisted, unforgettable little film” and “a jolting, superbly directed suspense thriller.” I may have overrated it. Just a bit.

Shaking the creepy crawlies out of my pant cuffs, I then hit the Criterion Center -- or “Criterion dungeon” as my buddies and I affectionately called it -- for a packed showing of Kevin Tenney’s NIGHT OF THE DEMONS. A nightmarish collection of subterranean screening rooms, most of them barely larger than the shoebox porn theater seen in TAXI DRIVER, the Criterion dungeon was a favorite venue of local sub-distributors Marvin Films and Aquarius Releasing because it was one of the few places they could get titles like THE T&A TEAM, COCAINE WARS, KUNG FU OF THE 5-HAND NINJA GANG and BARBARIC BEAST OF BOGGY CREEK II up on a marquee next to mainstream Hollywood studio releases -- even if the latter played the big auditoriums aboveground and the former played the broom closets in the basement.

After a quick bite at Nathan’s and some pinball at Playland, I swung by the Roxy III, a 24-hour video triplex near the south corner of 42nd and 7th Avenue, next to the now renovated (but then shuttered) New Amsterdam theater. I was never brave enough to set foot inside the Roxy III but I loved its gaudy, sleazy exterior: the flashing lights on the small marquee, the turnstile in front of the bulletproof box-office, the illuminated color movie stills (which made the outside of the theater look like the inside of a Chinese take-out joint), and especially the TV that ran previews and action-packed clips of the old-school kung fu and blaxploitation flicks showing inside. It didn’t matter if it was day or night -- if you stopped to watch the previews, within 15 seconds you’d be flanked by salesmen offering everything from switchblades and fake ID’s to smack, crack, smoke, coke and teenage tail of every color, size, shape and gender. I wish I could remember what members of the animal kingdom were appearing in that night’s movie selection. Mantis? Monkey? Llama? Crane? I’ll play it safe and put my money on the Dragon.

A couple of minutes later I was on line in front of the Harris box-office -- yes, there was actually a line for TWISTED NIGHTMARE -- when a lisping middle-aged man in a black leather jacket and an elderly woman he referred to as “Muhh-therrrr!” stopped in front of the poster display and began to argue loudly. He resembled a gay-leather Rollie Fingers, she looked like E.T. on Halloween night, and they proceeded to carry on as if they had watched STAIRCASE on Million Dollar Movie the night before and were now fighting over which of them would play the Rex Harrison role. E.T. wanted to see TWISTED NIGHTMARE, which was starting in ten minutes, but Leather Fingers kept pointing at the Liberty Theater next door and shrieking “But we already saw it there!”

“I don’t think so.”

“Yes we did! Over there!”

“Well, I’m sorry but I really don’t remember seeing it.”


Fingers was right, by the way -- TWISTED NIGHTMARE had played the Liberty a few months earlier, along with NIGHT WARS (How’s this for a pitch: “COMING HOME meets A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, starring Grizzly Adams!”), but I kept my mouth shut, bought my ticket and went inside. The Harris was crowded and everyone seemed to be digging HELLRAISER II, which I hadn't seen yet (it had just opened). I took a seat in my usual spot -- the last row, so my back would be against the five-foot high dividing wall. This eliminated my biggest fear: that the person seated behind me would hold a knife to my throat or slit it from ear to ear.

After HELLRAISER II there were several trailers shown, most notably the teaser for THE PUNISHER, which if I remember correctly was nothing more than a single shot of Dolph Lundgren firing a machine gun and screaming. The crowd went nuts. Too bad the movie never opened -- it would’ve been a big hit at the Harris.

A few minutes into TWISTED NIGHTMARE, an elderly black woman and her four grandchildren filed into the row in front of me and sat down. She looked like one of the Delany Sisters in her Sunday best, and I don’t mean Diahann Carroll under a mess of Max Factor, I mean the real Delany Sisters. The kids ranged in age from 5 to 10, maybe 11 tops. In other words, the last group I’d ever expect to see in a 42nd Street theater for a movie titled TWISTED NIGHTMARE.

A few minutes later, when the first female victim bit the dust, I realized just how wrong I was with that assessment. The little 5-year-old girl in front of me began chanting “Kill -- her! Kill -- her! Kill -- her!” and much to my horror, the other three kids quickly joined in. More voices rang out, and as my eyes scanned the audience and readjusted to the darkness, I could see five or six lone silhouettes standing and waving their arms wildly at the screen. They wanted blood. “Kill that bitch!” one of them was cheering. Another yelled “Stab her with the pitchfork!” And all the time this was going on, Grandma Delany rocked back and forth and cackled like a sea hag. With visions of THE VAULT OF HORROR’s vampire restaurant dancing in my head, I sank deeper and deeper into my seat, convinced that at any second the theater doors would slam closed, locking me inside with a bloodthirsty crowd that would eventually turn on me and pick my bones clean. Every killing received the same spine-chilling reception for the next 80 minutes or so, and when the movie ended I bolted for the exit, practically kissing the sidewalk once I got outside. My heart was almost pounding out of my chest.

I couldn't wait to go back in there and see something else!


Anonymous said...

These recollections are so cool!!! These are the best stories I have heard about the grindhouse experience on 42nd street. Good thing is I can catch most of these double bills on dvd.

Kung Fu Manchu said...

Great story, keep them coming! Looks like they ran out of G's and had to use a backwards J (?) for The Revenger!

Serious Exploitation said...

Wow, your experience was way better than my experience with TWISTED NIGHTMARE.

My mom, the trooper she was back then, would sometimes take me to various horror movies and somehow I convinced her to check this out. We saw it at the Intracoastal 8 in North Miami Beach and we were the only people in the theater.

God, this movie sucked so bad. And she stayed through the whole fucking thing. Maybe she just fell asleep and never told me. I was too embarassed to ask to leave because I figured she'd yell at me for wasting her money.

Years later, I tried watching it on video again and it is still absolutely unredeemable on any level. Of course, your recollection of the audience makes me want to watch it again.

I don't know why. I think I'm ignorantly optimistic at sometimes.