Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: New Year’s Evil (1980)

Back in the 1990s, I appeared on a radio show to promote one of the low budget film projects that I was working on at that time. The host asked me if I had seen any good movies lately. For some reason, this question threw me. It’s always a little tricky to think of a good answer to an unexpected question when you’re put on the spot during a live interview. However, I watch at least one movie a day, so surely it should have been easy for me to rattle off a list of seven or ten titles just from the past week. But perhaps it was the inclusion of the word “good” that made me hesitate, and see nothing but visions of dust and tumbleweeds where the memory of my recently watched pile of movies should have been.

The last thing anyone wants on the radio is dead air, so I immediately started to answer the question with some sort of awkward stammering about how it all depended upon a person’s definition of “good”. Thankfully, as I was speaking, one recently watched movie came back to me.

“I just saw New Year’s Evil,” I told him.

The host looked puzzled. “New Year’s Evil…?”

“It’s not a recent movie,” I explained. “It’s an old slasher film from the ’80s. Made after Halloween, so they named it after a holiday – or at least a day in the calendar. Like Friday the 13th or My Bloody Valentine.”

“I haven’t seen it,” the host admitted, “but I know which movie you’re talking about.” He was roughly my age, and a huge fan of ’80s movies, so it wasn’t surprising that he would have heard of it.

“As you know, I’m a fan of slasher films,” I continued, “but I had never seen this one either. Maybe because the books all said it was bad.”

“And was it?” he asked me.

“I actually liked it,” I said, and I’m not sure which one of us was more surprised by that answer.

Truth be told, my expectations for New Year’s Evil (1980) had been pretty low. My most trusted review book, Terror On Tape by James O’Neill, gave the movie one and a half stars and called it “A less than great throwback to those bygone days when no holiday was safe from the makers of mad slasher movies… With bad music, little blood, and a predictable twist ending…” In Video Trash and Treasures, L.A. Morse says “I think there are more music/dance interludes than bodies in this one, which probably says it all…”. I actively avoided watching this movie for the better part of two decades. It was only when I found an old VHS tape in a bargain bin that I decided it was time to finally see what it was all about.

I certainly did not expect to discuss this movie on a live radio show about FIlm.

It was true that I had enjoyed New Year’s Evil much more than I had expected to – perhaps largely due to the very low expectations that I had developed over the years. Most reviewers criticized the film for it’s extensive use of rock band performance footage – and often called the music bad. I actually enjoyed that aspect of the film. It’s about a big New Years Eve rock show. They call it a “punk rock” show, but the music seems to be more straight up hard rock or classic rock. We do see bands performing several times throughout the movie.

I have a particular fondness for movies about rock bands. This Is Spinal Tap (1984) is a favourite of mine from way back – and it is, in way, about “bad music”, although my friends and I all bought the soundtrack and loved it. I am also a huge fan of the heavy metal horror films like Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare (1987), Black Roses (1988) and Rocktober Blood (1984). New Year’s Evil is not really like those movies. It’s not a story about the band(s), or in which the members of the bands are characters. In fact, the bands in New Year’s Evil are actually real bands. This makes it, in some ways, closer to movies like The Prowler (1981) which features a band performing on stage. But New Year’s Evil features so much music – and a flamboyant rockstar-like celebrity host played by Roz Kelly (who some might remember as Pinky Tuscadero on Happy Days (1974-84)) – that it takes on a bit of that rock band horror movie feel. And call me crazy, but I like the music featured in the film – you can hear the theme song by Shadow on YouTube.

So, I wasn’t lying to the radio host when I said that I had liked New Year’s Evil, but I think it was a fairly mild like after that first viewing. Over the years, however, I started to watch New Year’s Evil on New Years Eve (go figure), and I found my appreciation of the film growing stronger with each viewing. Kind of like a song or album that you hear once and think is okay, but after you hear it a few more times you start to really get into it. Those are some of favourite songs/albums. After wearing out my VHS tape, I upgraded to the Scream Factory Blu-ray and I couldn’t be happier. The film has never looked (and sounded) better, and it’s nice to have a few extras to enhance the experience.

One more rock and roll reason to love New Year’s Evil (at least for me), is the fact that Nurse Robbie, whom our psychopathic killer encounters at a mental institution, is played by Jennie Franks. She has a few acting credits over a ten year period, and was apparently also a photographer and playwright. I had never noticed this before, but she also has quite a few songwriting credits on the IMDb – and they are all for one song: Aqualung by Jethro Tull. Those who know me, know that I am a huge fan of Jethro Tull, and Aqualung is one of my all time favourite albums, and songs. When I saw Jennie Franks’ soundtrack credits on the IMDb, my brain couldn’t quite comprehend them – until I remembered that Aqualung is one of the only songs in Jethro Tull’s vast catalogue that wasn’t written solely by Ian Anderson. And I had noticed, years ago, that the co-writer of Aqualung was a woman… Jennie Anderson, in fact; Ian’s first wife. Now I discover, much to my surprise, that Jennie Franks, the actress who plays the nurse who (SPOILER ALERT) gets murdered in New Year’s Evil, used to be called Jennie Anderson, and is, in fact, the very same Jennie Anderson who co-wrote one of my all time favourite songs!

What are the odds of that?

I actually always liked Jennie Franks’ portrayal of Nurse Robbie in this movie, but I had no idea who she was until this year. I suspect that all future viewings of New Year’s Evil will only be enhanced by this exciting new discovery…

Director Emmett Alston only made eight films during his relatively brief career, and by the looks of them they might all be #NotQuiteClassicCinema of one type of another. Alston seemed to be particularly partial to ninjas, having made three films about them. A year before  New Year’s Evil was released, Alston made his directorial debut with something called Three-Way Weekend (1979). It’s described on the IMDb as “Two bisexual girls go camping in the woods and are followed around by a perverted guy in a gorilla mask and a man in uniform with a whip who thinks everyone’s a communist…”. If ever a film heralded the arrival of a cinematic genius it’s got to be this one. Needless to say, I’m putting it on my must-find-a-copy-and-watch list.

 

 

For me, New Year’s Evil (1980) will always be a welcome addition to any #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn – especially if that Friday also happens to be New Years Eve, or New Year’s Day. And looking at my new 2021 calendar, I think I know what I’ll be doing next December 31…

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Torture Garden (1967)

I seem to recall that somebody told me never to watch Torture Garden (1967). He may have gone so far as to say that it was the worst movie he’d ever seen. Well…

Clearly he’d never seen any truly bad movies.

Torture Garden is a well made movie, with good actors, good production values, etc. It is not even in the same category as the “worst movies ever made”. I could name a few titles that might be contenders, but no matter which ones I choose, there will be someone out there who will say “But I love that movie…”. And I will most likely nod my head and say “So do I.”

I am a connoisseur of “bad movies”. I have friends with whom I watch movies, and we often refer to our marathons as “bad movies nights”. But this does not mean that we judge all of the movies we watch to be “bad”. Often we discover movies that we quite like; lost gems from the video fringes and bargain bins of yesteryear. Sometimes a movie is objectively “bad”, but it is 90 minutes of pure entertainment. Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) is often called “the worst movie ever made”, but it is actually quite fun to watch. This raises the question: If a movie if entertaining, can it truly be called bad?

          

One of my favourite movie review books, Terror On Tape by James O’Neill, gives Plan 9 From Outer Space three stars (on a four star system). On the same page he gives Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty For Me (1971) three stars. These movies are at opposite ends of the spectrum, quality-wise, but O’Neill gives them the same rating. He calls Plan 9… a “grade Z masterpiece” and notes that it is “a lot funnier than many intentional so-called comedies.” A lot of books would give Plan 9… zero stars, or half a star, and dismiss it as a “bad movie”. I admire O’Neill’s approach, which I think is more useful. Incidentally, O’Neill also gives Torture Garden three stars. One might be tempted to think he gives all movies three stars, but I can assure you that this is not the case.

Torture Garden is an entertaining horror anthology by Amicus Productions, the British film company that specialized in horror anthologies (Tales From The Crypt (1972), Vault of Horror (1973), etc.), It is written by well known author Robert Bloch, most famous for writing Psycho. All of the stories in Torture Garden involve an element of the fantastic; something that could be described as “far fetched”, if one was particularly inclined to stick with realism. I could imagine that this might be why some people would say Torture Garden is  a “bad movie”, or in fact “the worst movie” they have ever seen.

But that’s complete nonsense, isn’t it? Good movies can be made from ideas that are utterly absurd. I can think of a few personal favourites that if someone had pitched to me before they were made, I might have said “How the hell is THAT going to make a good movie?” The idea, or concept, isn’t always the most important thing. A composer friend of mine was once looking for an idea for a new musical. He wanted it to be “perfect”, so he kept running ideas past me and asking what I thought. Most of the time I would say “That’s an idea that could work.” Eventually I said “Look, it doesn’t matter what IDEA you choose. The trick is just to pick something and work hard to MAKE it good.” Who would have thought that a musical about cats would be a monster success (not withstanding the new movie adaptation which some people are calling “the worst movie they have ever seen)?

Torture Garden (1967) is not the worst movie I have ever seen. I enjoyed it – perhaps all the more for having been warned away from it once upon a time. The fact that some people feel it’s horrendously bad makes it #Certified #NotQuiteClassicCinema and the perfect addition to a #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn.

Friday night at the home drive-in: I Eat Your Skin (1964) or was it (1971)?

Who doesn’t know the story of this movie? Shot in 1964, but not released until 1971, it was originally titled Zombie, or maybe Invasion of the Zombies, but when producer Jerry Gross needed a second feature to send out with I Drink Your Blood he retitled it to I Eat Your Skin.

I Eat Your Skin got panned in every horror review book I ever read. Terror On Tape, by James O’Neill, gave it one and half stars and noted that the acting was “as gruesome as it gets.” Creature Features, by John Stanley, also gave it one and half stars and said “Credit (or discredit) Del Tenney for writing-producing-directing this mess.” Thanks to reviews like these, I avoided watching I Eat Your Skin for many years. But there was always a nagging voice somewhere in the back of mind telling me that this movie needed to be seen. And since it came as a bonus feature on my super-deluxe blu-ray of I Drink Your Blood, I no longer had any excuse to ignore it.

The movie isn’t half as bad as it’s reputation suggests. It’s exactly the kind of movie I used to see on Not Quite Classic Theatre when I was a teenager; it’s black and white, it’s about monsters, and it’s oddly inspiring (to me). Perhaps it’s the imperfect expression of entertaining ideas that draws me in. It’s like reading a rough draft of a script and seeing the potential for greatness in it – or at least the potential for improvement.

The best parts of I Eat Your Skin, for me, are the scenes shot at the legendary Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. I first leaned about the Fontainebleau when I was writing episodes of a true crime documentary series. One of the cases I became immersed in was the murder of Ben Novack Jr. – who some referred to as “the prince of the Fontainebleau.” His parents built and ran the hotel throughout its historic heyday in the 1950s and ’60s, when Hollywood stars like Frank Sinatra were regular customers – and movies like Goldfinger (1964) were partially shot there. I’ve watched Goldfinger several times over the years, but not since learning about the Fontainebleau. So, I was pleasantly surprised to recognize the hotel in the opening shots of I Eat Your Skin, which was coincidentally shot there in the same year as Goldfinger.

I think what I like about location scenes, particularly in low budget movies, is that they seem to offer us glimpses of history preserved on film. No matter how unimportant a movie like I Eat Your Skin may be, it can still show us what a place like the Fontainebleau was like, at that time. The bigger budget the movie, the more the filmmakers can manipulate what we see. But a movie like I Eat Your Skin probably just pointed the camera at what was there. It’s possible that some of the people in the background were simply hotel guests who agreed to be filmed. That would have been a nice vacation souvenir, wouldn’t it?

I Eat Your Skin is not the best movie of it’s kind, but it’s far from being the worst. Its style and atmosphere take me back to the glory days of Not Quite Classic Theatre – and I will definitely be watching it again. It’s a perfect addition to the #NotQuiteClassicCinema library.