Wow. I did it. 31 horror movies in the month of October. And there's still three days to go! I'M BREAKIN' RECORDS OVER HERE
This is an interesting flick. I'd had it recommended to me before, but never really looked into it. It just seemed to me-- from, granted, what was a cursory glance-- to be your standard early-1980s slasher flick. The poster was just a bloody axe dangling from a dude's hand, so there wasn't a whole lot to recommend it.
This time, it hovered into my field of interest, and when it was recommended to me, the cast was played up-- and whoa, what a cast. Jack Palance, Donald Pleasence, Martin Landau, plus a bevy of supporting character actors. Landau and Palance are crazy people in an asylum run (very loosely) by Donald Pleasence, and when one of the doctors retires and is replaced, the most dangerous inmates decide that the new doctor must have killed the old one. So they make it their mission to hunt him down and kill him.
And man, Jack Palance chews the scenery beautifully in this movie.
Although, to be fair, everyone chews the scenery beautifully in this movie.
The movie is helped along by a great supporting cast-- the new doctor (played by the same guy who was "Howlin' Mad" Murdock in The A-Team has a family, and they're all written and played well, generating empathy and concern in a genuine way, rather than feeling totally manufactured. You can tell the writer and director genuinely liked these characters, rather than just cramming a bunch of people together and hoping we'd root for them out of some generic protagonist cameraderie.
Don't get me wrong, though, there are plenty of rando murders. At one point, Jack Palance is driving the van full of lunatics down a suburban street, and they come upon a postman riding his bike. "I want his hat," says Landau. Palance starts driving faster and faster to chase the guy down, and the postman makes the terrible mistake of calling Palance an asshole. So naturally, this requires retribution.
There are also a fair amount of tropes and standard horror-movie fare. There's a bunch of violent nuts escapaed from an asylum, a conveniently-timed power outage, one of the psychos wears a hockey mask (although this came out the same year as Friday the 13th Part III, the first time Jason Voorhees wore a hockey mask-- I'm not sure which came first), there's your standard boobtastic "college kids fool around until they get murdered" scene, corpses falling out of a closet that our heroes are trying to hide in, a good cop who meets a bad end, a surprise twist, et cetera.
They're all played pretty straight, but in context they seem-- well-- not exactly tongue-in-cheek, but definitely a little meta and self-aware, although not in a humorous or parodic way. They're just nods to the genre, and they're all done really well and serve to further the plot or allow for the continuation of the larger story.
But really, most of the character interactions are stellar, especially when it's the principals. There's a confrontation between Donald Pleasence's well-intentioned but naive doctor and Martin Landau's murderous ex-preacher that's worth the price of admission just by itself.
The pacing, writing, casting, and acting set this apart from most of the 80s slashers out there. I enjoyed it thoroughly.