Monday, October 24, 2016

Hubrisween 2016 :: S is for Screams of a Winter Night (1979)

Our latest film opens creepily enough with an Arch Oboler-esque mini radio drama -- so, let’s all listen in, shall we, as the screen remains black and the credits roll and an ominous wind howls through the trees in the background. In the foreground we hear a sizable family stressing out something fierce about the deteriorating weather conditions outside, fearing “It’s back”. And as the ferocity of the wind increases, some thing howls even louder -- presumably that “It” everyone’s so worried about. With It’s presence now confirmed, the agitation inside goes off the charts as we also hear the livestock go equally berserk outside. With that, the men gather their guns and head out over the protests of the womenfolk, who then fretfully watch and listen as the wind grows even more savage and whatever that is howling gets ever closer; then, several shots are heard; then, an unearthly roar; then, screaming as the men are torn to pieces; and then all we hear is the ferocious wind and the sobbing and screaming of those left behind as the monster grows closer and the house proves no refuge at all. Another roar, closer this time, in fact right outside the door, more screams, an explosive rending of wood, tapering screams, and then … silence -- save for that unholy wind.

Alas, this nifty preamble then gives way to your standard group of youths packed in a van, ten in total, as they wind their way deeper into a heavily forested area. At the wheel, John (Borel), whose idea this trip was, shouts down all the “Are we there yet” complaints, guaranteeing they’ve almost reached their destination. Of course, no trip into the backwoods by citified folks would be complete without having to stop at a redneck gas station, complete with peckerwoods, hayseeds, and a couple of inbred children poking a feral pig trapped inside a box with a stick.

And while the others gawk or round up supplies -- mostly beer, the attendant (Ragsdale) is a little surprised to hear they’re headed to Lake Durand since no one in their right mind heads up there this time of year. (And judging by the condition of the trees and thickness of the coats everyone is wearing I’d say we’re talking dead of winter somewhere in the south.) Then, John cuts this bumpkin off before he can go into any details about the weird stuff that goes on up there -- a warning to stay away, really, wanting that privilege all to himself.

Back on the road, our designated tour guide begins by telling the others that Lake Durand used to be called Coyote Lake by the Indians, due to the “weird noises” the wind makes as it howls through the trees. But Steve (Glasgow) is less concerned about local lore and more concerned about how many bedrooms this cabin they’re heading to has. He gets his answer when they finally arrive at more of a lodge than a cabin -- a study in rural Gothic, rustic, with no power, and layered cobwebs. And after a slight delay with a stubborn door, the group makes it inside; and so we have John and Steve, and his girl, Sally (Bradley), couples Harper and Jookie (Gaspard, Allen), and Cal and Laurie (Byers, Norton), the bitchy Elaine (Cox) and her loyal sycophant, Alan (Rucker), and finally, Liz (Barret), whom John apparently has the hots for, who all start tidying up and claiming rooms.

Needing some firewood, John recruits Cal and leads him off into the woods. And as he blathers on about the local legend surrounding the area (-- basically recapping the story we heard over the opening credits, explaining that was the namesake Durand family who got massacred under dubious circumstances back in the 1870s, with parts of their bodies found scattered all over the countryside), you get the sense that John had some ulterior motive for dragging all of his friends out here. Is another killing spree imminent? Eh, more than likely the morbid little creep just likes this kind of cryptid stuff and needed a captive audience to bloviate at.

Anyhoo, they reach the remains of a house and a small cemetery, which John claims is the old Durand homestead -- and the Durands, indicating the headstones, adding some credence to what he has been selling. The whole thing, John says, was written off as some kind of freak natural disaster. Others, however, think it was the Shitaba, an angry wind spirit, who doesn’t like trespassers on his property -- he typed ominously.

After night falls, the group gathers around the fireplace. John is still blathering about the local legend, which triggers a discussion on what really scares people. Harper throws out certain horror movies are scary, while Liz says the news is what really frightens her. Steve brings up the recent rash of serial killers, referencing the Son of Sam and the Hillside Strangler. Everyone seems engaged in this argument until John once more has to prove he’s the smartest man in the room, saying he has a story that will really scare them, meaning we have an evening of spooky stories around the campfire ahead of us, so strap in, Boils and Ghouls. And if you listen closely as John fights to keep everyone’s attention, you can almost hear the wind starting to kick up a bit outside...

Richard Wadsack and James Wilson met in college, and when considering the many collegiate false starts each had, this could be considered a minor miracle in some circles. Fate, even. After graduation, Wadsack tried his hand at advertising but soon abandoned it to rejoin his friend, who had been recently hired to head-up a local theater group in Natchitoches, Louisiana. And after putting several (sort of) successful productions together, the duo formed an advertising agency, eking out a living producing a few commercials and documentaries on the local plantations. And as the work ground on and burned them out, over a night of heavy drinking the duo planted the seed of applying their talents toward something a little more permanent on their creative record: a movie. The problem was, at the time, neither new squat about making movies. What they did have was Wilson’s experience with directing and production skills, and Wadsack’s talent for writing ad copy and marketing. They gave themselves a year.

Inspired by the success of other regional and local film entrepreneurs who had shot and sold their own features, they sought out the advice of Charles B. Pierce [The Legend of Boggy Creek (1973), The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976)], Joy Houck [Wishbone Cutter (1977)], and Jim McCullough [Creature from Black Lake (1976)]. Here they learned a hard lesson: while many regional films were started, most were never finished. Undaunted, the duo was then invited to Little Rock, Arkansas, where Harry Thomason was filming a monster movie called The Day it Came to Earth (1976). Thomason had scored a modest hit with Encounter With the Unknown (1973) and after spending several days observing, Wilson and Wadsack felt they could avoid the many pitfalls of production and were ready to seek out financing for a script Wadsack had already completed; a horror movie because those seemed easier to sell to investors and distributors. They found the money with Mark Lovell, a local real estate baron, who liked their pitch so much he agreed to finance the entire project.

With a fairly sizeable budget of $300,000, filming began on Screams of a Winter Night (1979) in late summer of 1978 in and around the city of Natchitoches and nearby Black Lake; locations both filmmakers were fairly familiar with. They were also familiar with most of the cast, culled from old friends from their theater days. And as the production wore on, they had to survive a crew revolt over craft services; and then they had to explain to local law enforcement, who were called in thinking someone was being lynched, that it was all part of a movie. But the biggest setback the production suffered was when the building housing their offices burned down, costing them props, wardrobe, and storyboards, not to mention the personal items. Luckily, Wadsack took one copy of the script home with him that fateful night as all others were lost in the blaze.

The script itself was written with marketing in mind. Hoping to hit as wide an audience as possible, the decision was made to make it scary but keep things at a PG level, meaning little to no violence, no drugs and no sex. (Hell, it worked for JAWS.) Based on several notorious campfire tales, the original tagline was “How do you think these stories got started?!” And once those were hashed out, the idea was to tie them all together somehow. Wadsack claims the film wasn’t an anthology in a classic sense, but unified tales tied together by a wraparound, which, Ta-Da!, makes it an anthology. The first tale, The Moss Point Man, is spun by John, which sort of combines the notion of Bigfoot with the urban legend of ‘The Dead Boyfriend’:

After getting through the knowing a guy who has a cousin who lives by where this happened, the story gets up to speed as prom night wanes and a couple heads for home (Barrett and Gaspard again). Trying to beat the girlfriend’s midnight curfew, the boyfriend takes a shortcut through the woods, where his car runs out of gas -- legitimately, adds John, saying it wasn’t a ploy for some backseat canoodling. None to happy about being stuck in the middle of nowhere, and with the clock ticking, knowing her parents will kill her, and then him, she gives the boy a ton of grief as he heads down the road on foot, gas can in hand. But once he’s out of sight, the night quickly closes in as she rapidly rolls up the window and locks all the doors.

Meanwhile, up the road a piece, the boy sees something big and hairy moving in the trees, abandons the container, and beats feet back toward the car. But that thing quickly closes the distance, cackling like a goober as it easily overtakes him. Still cackling, the creature drags the body into the woods. Meanwhile, meanwhile, back in the car, the already terrified girl is pushed into hysterics when she hears something prowling around and hides on the floor. And then comes an incessant scraping, whose maddening rhythm forces the girl out of the car, where she sees her boyfriend, dead, hung by the neck, his feet slowly scraping back and forth on the roof.

John ends the story here, saying the police found the girl the next morning tied to tree. They were also confused by a few forensic anomalies; namely the small foot prints found on the roof of the car, and the juvenile bite marks found on the girl’s legs. And while the story creeps out some, the majority calls it a load of horseshit. To that, John indignantly says, just because you don’t believe it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen and then storms off into the kitchen, where he once more corners Cal, unearthing several newspaper articles concerning strange happenings in the area, including a logging operation that was forced to withdraw after a series of tragic accidents in the 1940s, and a family of four who disappeared while camping near Lake Durand in the 1950s. Again, Cal doesn’t take the bait, much to John’s consternation.

Back in the main room, Steve gathers everyone around. Seems he has a tale to tell, too. And so, our second installment, The Green Light, begins at a nearby college where Steve’s brother knew a guy who knew a guy who was in a fraternity there. Seems part of their hazing ritual was forcing pledges to spend the night in an abandoned hotel that is rumored to be -- wait for it -- haunted, as a ghostly green light has been seen moving from room to room on the third floor. And rumor has it that anyone who ventures beyond the first floor is never heard from again. Anyhoo, three pledges, Billy, Parker and Ron (Glasgow, Gaspard and Borel again) are dumped off in the lobby, armed with only sleeping bags, a flashlight, and strict instructions to stay on the first floor.

Once they settle in, bemoaning the fact they snuck a candle in instead of beer or a broad, the trio suddenly hear noises coming from above. Figuring it's their frat-masters trying to screw with them, Billy decides to turn the tables and sneaks upstairs to try and ambush them. Time passes, the noises continue (-- that honestly sounds like a loose alternator belt on my old Buick), but Billy doesn’t come back. Parker thinks they should just leave, but Ron doesn’t want to wash out of the fraternity and coaxes his fellow pledge into joining a search of the upper floors.

Finding nothing on the second floor, Parker lingers behind as Ron heads up to the third, who calls back down, saying he found something. Reluctantly, Parker heads up the last flight of stairs, where he follows the noise to a door, which he opens, flooding the area with an eerie green light; the source of which is a green-tinted light bulb suspended on a wire, that Ron is currently circling like an errant moth doing the J-Horror Boogie; his clothes shredded, his face scratched up and bleeding, his hair blanched white and his mind apparently gone.

Saying the hotel was searched twice before they finally found the hidden room housing the two missing pledges, who were now both beat up, bleached white, and circling an empty socket, Steve reveals they both spent the rest of their lives in an insane asylum.

Again, the story really freaks out “Spooky” Jookie, who apologizes for ruining the mood after her post-tale conniption fit, which kinda spoiled the big reveal of what happened to the third missing pledge. Meantime, John has apparently given up on Cal and is now conspiratorially whispering something to Steve. He then declares they are running low on lamp fuel and asks Steve to come with him back to the gas station. Jookie, who never liked the vibe of the place, thinks maybe they all should just leave; but John, not so diplomatically, nixes any other passengers. 

Once they’re gone, Liz and Sally head to the kitchen to make some sandwiches. And after a little gossip over the state of affairs between the gathered couples, they hear something moving around outside near the window. The wind is in full force now -- (it has been subtlety getting louder with each interlude break); and as the girls peer out the window, a monster throws itself against the glass, causing the girls to scream and flee. Outside, Steve removes the fright mask. And when the others come back to investigate, they initially refuse to let Steve and John back in.

Apparently, this was John’s endgame all along -- an extended practical joke; a joke that has completely backfired as now all the girls are flipped out and demand to go home. Well, all of them except for Elaine, who is both unfazed and has barely kept her contempt in check for this whole excursion from the very beginning. She takes the floor and the venom flies, calling the earlier tales of ghost and goblins pure nonsense. No, the really creepy stories, she insists, are the human ones, where people snap and do horrible things. Especially the quiet ones, like Jookie or Sally. No one would ever believe they could kill someone, but it happens, which brings us to our third and final tale, The Girl Next Door:

Like a lot of urban legends, this one begins on Lover’s Lane, where an overzealous lothario (Glasgow again) gets his signals crossed with a girl named Annie (Allen again), who freaks out when he gets a little too fresh. But this creep won’t take ‘no means no, asshole’ for an answer and starts molesting the girl. She struggles valiantly but it’s almost past the point of no return. Grasping for her purse, she snatches a metal nail file and uses it to stab the man to death. She flees into the woods, but quickly composes herself, returns to the scene and alters a few things, telling the authorities they were attacked by some maniac who robbed them, killed the boy, and she was lucky to get away before he ran off. It’s an open and shut case.

Clearly she had a strong case of self-defense but it quickly becomes apparent the girl is no longer thinking straight, suffering from a massive amount of PTSD from the sexual assault. Becoming withdrawn and puritanical over the subject of s-e-x, she earns herself a new nickname: Crazy Annie. When she graduates high school, her folks send her to college out of state, hoping for a fresh start and new friends. It doesn’t work. Then one night, she returns to her room and notices one of her sweaters is missing. 

Assuming her roommate took it without asking -- and worse than that, she probably wore it on a date, with a boy, Crazy Annie goes all Play Misty for Me on the roommate's half of the dorm room. When the roommate returns (Bradley again), she finds all of her things destroyed. And when she asks why, she can hardly believe the answer and refuses to apologize. With that, Annie leaves the room, promising this “piece of trash” that she WILL be sorry for what she did. When she finally does come back, the roommate tries to make peace but it's all for naught as Annie reveals the knife she “borrowed” from the kitchen and hacks the other girl to pieces.

Okay, then, I’m pretty sure Jookie figured out this story was a veiled potshot at her. And then, after an embarrassing kit-bashed musical interlude officially pushes Jookie over the edge, everyone finally notices how savage the wind has gotten as the lodge starts to strain at the seams. Unable to calm Jookie down, Harper and Cal both think maybe they should just get her out of there. But John says he left the van several miles up the road so he and Steve could sneak back and scare everyone. He also offers its only a few hours until morning and maybe they should just wait it out for some daylight. Then, the night is pierced by a familiar howl (-- culled from the Children’s Television Workshop). Now everyone is frightened. Cal looks to John, who shrugs, saying it was all just a story he used to scare them.

The howling continues, and is getting closer, as the others demand to know what the hell they’re talking about. John is still in denial, but Cal says it’s Shitaba and strongly suggests they all leave immediately. Some are still incredulous but there is no more time for debate; and so, Cal grabs Laurie and heads for the backdoor. Harper and Jookie are right behind them. The others remain, unsure of what to do.

Outside, Cal encourages everyone to run like hell and to not look back. Inside, Sally is ready to flee and she begs Steve to go with her but he is frozen. And then the howling hits again, the cabin starts to pitch and heave, and Elaine decides, too late, to make a run for it as a large picture window explodes, shredding her with glass shrapnel.

We then get the demon's point of view as it flies above the cabin and then goes into a nosedive toward the front door, which explodes, killing Steve and Alan. And as the wind whips up some tornadic activity inside, the airborne furniture takes out John, a cast-iron light fixture crushes Liz, and a falling beam flattens Sally. And once they’re all dead, the wind whips the fire up until the cabin detonates in a huge fireball. Outside, the four survivors are still running like hell and are not looking back as we once again get a demon’s-eye view as Shitaba zeroes in on them. On the ground, they hear the demon’s roar right on top of them as the frame freezes and we fade to black.

One of the biggest faults found with Screams of a Winter Night is the throwaway wraparound segment proves to be the most interesting and entertaining part of the movie. Otherwise, the film is a bit of slog as it bogs down in these well-worn and nearly worn-out tales; but that ending is kind of amazing and really well executed, even employing one fairly effective POV crash-cut and zoom, when Shitaba bonzai dives on the cabin and takes out the door, beating Sam Raimi to the Evil Dead punch. Amazingly enough, all the outside wind effects were accomplished by a helicopter that also provided some pretty spiffy aerial footage of the fleeing campers -- more cost-saving measures to be sure. (Before shooting, the pilot warned everyone if they heard a certain noise from the engine to find cover immediately.)

After watching this film for the umpteenth time I was struck by two things. One, the valiant attempt by Don Zimmers’ soundtrack to add some creepiness to an otherwise lackluster atmosphere. If not for the sound design, where the wind gets everyone on the prod, this film would’ve been nigh insufferable.

Second, it finally clicked on how much the casting is seemingly inspired by how much each cast-member resembled a Not Ready for Prime Time Player (-- except for James Franciscus clone, Cal), as it’s easy to spot the Murray (Harper), Belushi (Steve), Newman (Laurie), Ackroyd (John), Radner (Liz), Curtain (Sally), and Chase (Alan) surrogates. Strangely enough, the only actor who went on to any success was William Ragsdale, the bumpkin gas-jockey, who appeared as the lead in the Fright Night franchise (1985-1988) before hitting it big on the small screen with Herman’s Head.

Letting the same actors pull double-duty as characters in the trio of woven tales was also based more on practicality than inspiration. Still, I think it definitely adds something to the proceedings, giving things a palpable point of reference by plugging your “friends” into these morality plays, which might say more about the storyteller than the characters as these familiar faces are being murdered or raped or molested by a herd of midget Bigfoot at an alarming rate.

Apparently, there was a fourth story shot that made it into the original theatrical cut of the movie, concerning a witch haunting a cemetery. However, this version clocked in at just over two hours and the eventual distributor demanded it be cut down to at least an hour and forty minutes for maximum turnaround on a daily basis. And since the sequence was shot day for night and didn’t look so hot, meaning the action would be nearly indiscernible on low-contrast drive-in screens, the whole sequence got the axe. This scene still exists, however, in a complete 35mm print owned by Wilson and, who knows, maybe it will show up as an extra on the oft-rumored but still not available Code Red Bluray of Screams of Winter Night. I hope so; at least I hope the film finally makes the digital leap as those long out of print and extremely rare VHS tapes are stupid expensive and all that.

Back in 1979 it was this longer version that Wilson and Wadsack used for the sold out premiere. They then gave it a small regional roll-out in several other test cities in the south, performing well in all of them -- it was even held over on some screens for over six weeks. With solid box-office numbers and dollar signs dancing in their heads, the duo took their film to Hollywood looking for some national distribution. And while they had basically done everything right up to that point, Screams of a Winter Night was about to run right into a brick wall -- a victim of bad timing and a dynamic shift in the fortunes of cinematic horror. Thanks to the likes of Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980), slashers, blood, explicit violence and skin were all the rage and no one was all that interested in a quaint old fashioned backwoods ghost story.

They finally got a nibble from Dimension Pictures (-- but not THAT Dimension Pictures), which had a long history in exploitation, ranging from Rudy Ray Moore flicks, to Gator Bait (1974), to Kingdom of the Spiders (1978), to importing a ton of foreign thrillers like Strip Nude for Your Killer (1975). They were the ones who demanded the segment cuts and pushed for inserts of blood and boobs to be shoehorned in to appease the change in audience’s appetites; but by then it was way too late for any of that. Pairing it up with the reprehensible The Redeemer: Son of Satan (1979), Screams of a Winter Night did get its national release, doing decent business, even cracking the top 25 in grosses according to Variety. Of course, both Wilson and Wadsack saw hardly any of this money as they learned another harsh lesson in filmmaking: the art of creative bookkeeping that can make profits magically disappear when it comes to your cut.

Shortly after, Dimension Pictures declared bankruptcy, and Screams of a Winter Night started popping up in several various and kinda illegal releases on VHS. Wilson eventually won back the domestic rights for the film in court, but the cat was already out of the bag. When it became apparent that no real follow up features were gonna happen in Hollywood, Wilson and Wadsack moved back to Louisiana, where they tried to get another independent feature off the ground but their original financier, soured by the whole experience, declined. And that was essentially the end of that, with both men amicably going their own way, Wilson getting a job in advertising while Wadsack went to work at a newspaper. Neither regret the experience, both wish it had a better outcome for all involved -- except for the distributor. They can just drop dead.

I think I have now officially lost count of the number of times I’ve sat through Screams of a Winter Night. The first time I watched it, I found it to be pretty terrible and figured it would never darken my TV again. Granted, this was on an ancient VHS rental that barely tracked but still. Yeesh. And yet! And yet, I keep getting drawn back to it. Again, the featured stories are completely disposable but I love the stuff with the Curse of Shitaba, the wind, and the pants on fire climax. The film has a strange bugaboo of escalating momentum that takes a while to latch onto. The horror is there, we just tend to miss it. And once you do, you’re hooked. Miserably so. Mistakes were made, to be sure. But after sifting through all the evidence of this virginal effort, I would’ve loved to see what a more matured Wilson and Wadsack had to offer. 

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's 19 down with seven to go!

Screams of a Winter Night (1979) Full Moon Pictures :: Dimension Pictures / EP: S. Mark Lovell / P: Richard H. Wadsack, James L. Wilson / D: James L. Wilson / W: Richard H. Wadsack / C: Robert E. Rogers / E: Gary Ganote, Craig Mayes / M: Don Zimmers / S: Matt Borel, Gil Glasgow, Patrick Byers, Mary Agen Cox, Robin Bradley, Ray Gaspard, Beverly Allen, Brandy Barrett, Charles Rucker, Jan Norton, William Ragsdale


Dr. Freex said...

You've hit the nail upon the head: if not for those sad sub-"Bloody Mary" campfire stories, Screams might have been a nice little, even noteworthy, regional horror movie. Then again, without them, it would have been twenty minutes long, sooooo

(I traveled a hundred miles and paid money to see it. That opening credit sequence made me hope for great things.)

W.B. Kelso said...

I'm pretty sure reading your write-up a million years ago first led me to this flick. So, technically, THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT!!!

Seriously, though, this film is like a lingering cold. Once you catch it, it refuses to go away.

Anonymous said...

Really pretty pathetic and telling when the only big star of a movie went on to play a not-very-memorable yet insufferably annoying character in a classic 80s horror movie next to studly Chris Sarandon. And then played an equally annoying and unmemorable character on a cheesy sitcom where his character is oddly enough played up as a ladies man even though it also had the GORGEOUS and HYSTERICAL Hank Azaria in it. And yet we are honestly supposed to buy that all these gorgeous women were actually after...WILLIAM FREAKING GAGSDALE?!?!?! INSTEAD OF GORGEOUS HUNK AZARIA?!?!?! PUH-LEEEZE!!!

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