Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Intruder (1988)

When I was a kid, I lived for horror films. I often could get my old man to take me to the theatre to see one on the weekend so afterwards we could raid the local hamburger joint, as mom kept us in healthy eating at the house. Primary 80s horror viewing was done via the video store, however, and I relished "New Release" day so I could browse the stacks of boxes. I'll never forget the box of demonic Angela in Night of the Demons, Pinhead on the Hellraiser boxes, or the iconic skull on the box of Evil Dead 2. This artwork screamed "Rent Me!" and I often picked up quite a few for the weekend. I knew about all of these flicks well in advance, because I hungrily read genre magazines Fangoria and Gorezone from cover to cover, as if they were my bible. As I got older, this passion for horror films seriously waned. Now, I rarely watch any new horror cinema, and like most of the cinema covered here, I seek out the obscure and forgotten (or never known) for something unique and different.

A few months ago on eBay, I got a lot of genre magazines, primarily Fango and Gorezone, for a pittance, perhaps from someone once like me. When I got them in the mail, I started perusing them. A lot of those old feelings of excitement returned. I even got the opportunity to read my letter in an issue of Gorezone where I queried the editors on the work of Jim Van Bebber whose film Deadbeat at Dawn was making a bloody splash on the horror scene! Finally, when Bryce at Things that Don't Suck announced that he was hosting Raimifest, I knew exactly which film that I would revisit and then review. I had rented it over twenty years ago and had been disappointed--not in the film mind you, but in its video presentation. I even found the article in Gorezone No. 6 that inspired me to seek it out, written by the inimitable Chas. Balun. Allow me to quote Balun's opening paragraph from his article to kick off the substantive portion of this review:

"Actor, writer, producer, director, Fake Shemp, practical joker, devoted horror fan, and close personal friend to both Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell--known 'em both since junior high school, as a matter of fact. His previous film credits include Evil Dead II (as co-writer and actor), Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except (co-writer, producer) and The Dead Next Door (actor). He's currently in postproduction on Intruder, his feature film directorial debut that co-stars old chums Sam and Ted Raimi and Bruce Campbell; it sports the FX talents of Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger and Bob Kurtzman (Savini's crew on Day of the Dead)." (Gorezone, No. 6, March 1989. edited by Anthony Timpone, O’ Quinn Studios Publishing, New York, p.8) The director described is Scott Spiegel whose film Intruder was also co-written and produced by Lawrence Bender (whose collaborations with Quentin Tarantino must have led to these three eventually working together on From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money (1999)). Intruder is about a crew working in a grocery store after closing who get picked off, one by one, by a killer. It's a film with a single location, few characters, and a simple plot. While Spiegel admits in the Gorezone article that after working on Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except, low-budget films, like Evil Dead, should be kept to a single location for organizational and budgetary reasons (Gorezone, p.9), his decision to do so with Intruder is as much a creative one: like Evil Dead and the film that he co-wrote previously, Evil Dead 2, when the setting, plot, and characters are simple, the complexity and creativity can come with the details. The opportunity for interesting and bloody practical effects; off-kilter photography, lighting, and editing; and dark comedy are ripe. Does Intruder succeed? Yes, kind of, sort of, no. However, Spiegel and crew had some hurdles to clear in 1989 even before the cameras started rolling.

In 1989. the MPAA had its sharpest scissors. Virtually every horror film with an iota of gore was censored by the group. Video had saved a lot of horror films, as "unrated" versions of films were common. Balun notes in his article that Paramount Home Video would release Intruder on video (Gorezone, p. 11) and this was the version that I first saw. (Someone is going to have to verify the following information for me, as I don't have an original VHS of Intruder to view.) The subsequent VHS release had its gore censored and was released rated R. It was even censored in a disrespectful manner: scenes were cut from the release with its audio, so even the music gets muffed. Paramount didn't even bother cutting and then redoing the audio track. With a low-budget film with a heavy portion devoted to elaborate FX, there went a good part of its appeal.

However, Intruder was going to suffer at its inception: by 1989 or even before, the slasher genre was tired. Three buzz words surrounded Intruder in print media: "slasher," "gore," and "grocery store." How would Spiegel attempt to tackle and entertain and make memorable his film among jaded fans? In the Gorezone article, Spiegel reveals himself a real horror fan with a deep love for the genre. He declares that "Intruder is straightforward in a Halloween kind of way." (Gorezone, p.10) However, this same filmmaker also made Super-8 comedies in his youth with Sam and Ted Raimi, and this comedic tradition continues in his adulthood with both Evil Dead 2 and Intruder. (Gorezone, p. 8) Ultimately, Intruder wants to be a tension-filled horror film with laughs. The comedy and the horror actually work against each other in the film.

Here is an example and it is representative. In celebration of Raimifest, the character is Randy, portrayed by Sam Raimi, and his death scene (yes, he dies in the film. What a shock.). By the end of the first act in traditional fashion, all of the characters are introduced, the mystery opened, red herring inserted, and the dramatic motivation begun: the grocery store is shutting down. The two co-owners are selling the store. The crew has to stay overnight to mark all the prices down in the store. This motivation will separate the characters into different parts of the store and put each alone on some task. By the time Raimi's Randy meets his demise, the viewer has already seen his treatment: character alone, quiet audio, dark room, a minute for him/her to discover that something is amiss, then audio cue, attack, and gore scene. It is very predictable to say the least. The comedy, when inserted in these scenes, is completely out of place. For example, Randy is in the meat department, and before the killer gets him, he picks up a packaged container. Instead of a fresh cut steak, it is a human hand. The tension is not only undercut by the predictability but its comedy. Nail-biting, chuckle, or jump scare? I don't know. Take your pick. However, this is my opinion in 2011. If Intruder were made today, not only would I have never seen it, then I probably would have never had known about it. Intruder does have a wonderfully dated quality that really defines it. The grocery store setting appears genuine and also appears dated even in 1988. To see products that are no longer around because they have lost their utility or their companies have gone under, print magazines no longer published, and technology seriously outdated is surreal.

Anyone can attack a mystery or a horror film armed with elementary logic. Take any mystery: define the number of characters, reduce the pool by their obvious characteristics from the extreme ends of the spectrum, limit the pool to a workable bunch, and deduce the killer from the small group. Shit, you can probably guess with bulls-eye accuracy. Or, even easier, attack the traditional, three-act structure, plot-driven film. First, learn the running time of the film from either the back of the DVD cover or on the internet from, say, Moviefone. Second, divide the film's running time into thirds and make note of each time. While watching the film, look at your watch. At the end of the first third, all of the characters in the film are introduced, the exposition delivered, and the dramatic conflict begun. At the end of the second act, again look at your watch, the dramatic action should be fuelled and the characters should have some sort of knowledge as to its resolution. Finally, the third act has the most structural sub-components but its ultimate aim is climax and resolution. So, for example, when I look at my watch at the end of an hour into Intruder, it's "final girl" time. I can pretty much guess where this is going. It's a load of shit to say it, but it's true: a film's heart can never be measured with any logical or mathematical approach. It is conveyed really to the viewer, and the level to which it reaches you is dependent on the viewer. Intruder conveys a tremendous amount of heart. The enthusiasm with which Balun writes his Gorezone article and the geeky-horror-movie-fan enthusiasm so very present in Spiegel radiates throughout Intruder. The shadowy compositions are really effective. Spiegel is able to make his shadows powerful enough to compete with the other props and gore effects in the frame, and often the shadows win out in creepy factor. Often a lot of the comedy, while it may be out of place, is quite endearing. For example, virtually everyone who works in the store is constantly snacking on something. Raimi's Randy is totally focused on some menial task. In the foreground of the composition, a jar of olives stands out from which Randy is mindlessly taking out olives. He pops them in his mouth without looking. The camera goes into close-up of the jar, and Randy reaches into the jar. The killer has placed an eyeball among the olives. Randy's fingers graze the eyeball but at the last second, he grabs an olive. It's a cute, "ewww" gore effect, and one that only a real lover of horror films would even think to include. Any Raimi fan will recognize Dan Hicks in Intruder and he gives a wonderful performance. He tells a story midway into the film that is totally creative and incredulous, yet Hicks's rendition is genuine. While all of the performances in Intruder waver in quality, none are lacking in enthusiasm. The final film appears as if everyone, from cast and crew, want Intruder to be a roller-coaster scarefest. This one quality, its heart, is ultimately Intruder's redeeming quality. This is why it made fans in 1989 and still has fans, like me, today. Intruder is old-school predictable horror but it's old-school horror. They just don't make them like this anymore. Okay, I'm fucking around. Yes, they do. However, not quite like this. See it and understand.


Paul Cooke aka Buckaroobanzai said...

Loved this in its Unrated version when it was first released. Preferred it under its alter title of Night Crew or Night Crew: The Final Checkout.
Great thoughts on revisiting this 'B' movie original VHS release horror / gore classic.

Alex B. said...

Man, I so understand you about being jaded and knowing exactly what's coming in each third of the film. It does really limit you to just watching obscure experimental or just plain amateurish films, as those can sometimes still surprise you.
A friend of mine made me watch Intruder but I didn't enjoy it much.
Even the gore was not intact, I think. But your review is cool!

Hans A. said...

Thanks gents for taking time to read this long post and share your thoughts. I got ridiculously theoretical/philosophical with this one and am now regretting it.

C'est la vie! Paul and Alex, your visits are always welcomed and appreciated. Thank you again.

Mr.LargePackage said...

Large review, Hans. Clock tower, red herring! And that is large and in charge.