Saturday, October 19, 2019

Hubrisween 2019 :: N is for The Nail Gun Massacre (1985)

Five months ago, six construction workers escalated things too far while screwing around on a break, resulting in the brutal rape of a delivery woman at a building site somewhere in east Texas. But the criminal proceedings against them went nowhere because it was six against one when it came to sworn testimonials on what actually happened. And with no corroborative witnesses the case was dropped by the District Attorney before ever going to trial. Thus, these gang rapists got away with it scot free. Until now.

Cut to a ramshackle home deep in the woods, where one of those slovenly rapists gives his old lady hell because he can’t find a clean shirt. And while the abused woman tends to the laundry out on the line with one hand, and drags their baby daughter around with the other, a person unknown, dressed in cammo-gear, boots, a motor-cycle helmet, with its visor obscured by duct tape to help conceal this person’s identity even further, and carrying a portable rig consisting of a compressed air-bottle hooked up to a pneumatic nail-gun strapped to their back, sneaks by the woman, using the smoke belching from a burn barrel as cover (-- or maybe it was intended to be fog and everyone missed their mark and blew the shot).

This mystery guest then gains entry into the house, surprises the man inside, then opens fire and empties a clip of nails, which turns the victim into a kind of macabre piece of art due to the tethering nature of the murder weapon. And once the killer leaves, the body is discovered by the wife, who scoops up the baby and flees the premises.

Cut to a month later, where a man named Mark (Coady) finishes up having sex with his girlfriend, credited as Mark’s Girlfriend (Gordon). Despite the offer of some sloppy seconds, Mark leaves Mark’s Girlfriend and Mark’s Girlfriend’s prominent breasts behind to go help his friend Brad (Hayes) chop-up some firewood. These two were also in on the gang rape, explaining why the same masked killer is silently stalking them into the woods, too.

And when Brad peels off to relieve himself, the killer springs into action, putting several nails into his chest and then a few more into his crotch to punctuate the point. Meantime, Mark is too busy taking a noisy chainsaw to several stubborn branches to hear Brad’s screams or notice the killer sneaking up behind him until another salvo of nails puncture the back of his neck. And to add insult to injury, Mark manages to chop one of his own hands off as he collapses and dies.

Later, at the crime scene, Doc (Patterson), the county coroner, examines the mutilated bodies, and then confers with the local Sheriff (Queen), noting how this is the third body found on Old Lady Bailey's property in less than a month. Seems the house where the first victim was killed is just a stone’s throw away, and that feels like too much of a coincidence to this pecker-wood version of Holmes and Watson. Following up on a hunch, the Sheriff interviews the widow, asking if her husband had worked in construction. But then abruptly drops this line of questioning when she confirms.

Meantime, a hitchhiker picked the wrong day to flip off the wrong car, giving the bird to a passing bright red hearse. For when it stops, the masked killer gets out and crucifies him onto the hot asphalt. Seems the killer has been busy, as the Sheriff and Doc receive a report of yet another victim riddled with nails, this time a woman, found stuck in a storm drain near the hardware store in town. And they barely have time to examine that body before word comes a trucker found the hitchhiker, dead, out in the middle of the highway. 

So now there are five victims of this deranged killer with the unique modus operandi. And while initially this looked like it was strictly a revenge killing, the latest two victims contradict that theory. Whatever the motive, odds are good this is only the mere beginning of a coming bloodbath...

A native of Dallas, Texas, Terry Lofton spent his late teens and early twenties as part of a traveling auto-daredevil show, where he served as a stunt-driver and demolitions expert, blowing up and wrecking cars and jumping motorcycles through hoops of fire. As part of the show’s promotional efforts, Lofton struck a two-year deal with the producers of The Dukes of Hazzard TV-show (1979-1985), which allowed Lofton to use one of the many ‘69 Dodge Chargers tricked-out as the General Lee as part of a mutual publicity stunt. But did this relationship go any further than that? Reports and interviews conflict on whether Lofton actually served as a stunt-driver on the TV show. As several accounts say he did, while the man himself said in a later interview featured in an outtakes reel that this promotional stunt with the General Lee on the periphery was as close as he ever really got to the actual production.

By all accounts, Lofton was an affable and super-nice guy but, nice or not, one gets a sense in his later years before tragically passing away at only 49 in 2011, he liked to embellish -- or at least not deny any part of his burgeoning legend as an independent filmmaker. And Lofton was never shy about taking potshots at himself, either, claiming he had to phase out of the stunt-show business because he’d spent too much time at the dinner table and grew his sizeable paunch. Unsure of what to do next, perhaps intrigued by his brush with Hollywood, Lofton kicked around the idea of maybe making a movie. With the booming home video market, there was definitely a demand for product -- any product, to fill up those brand new video store aisles. And then almost on a whim, the man bought out a bankrupt film company and took possession of all their equipment.

Now, a lot of amateur filmmakers always quipped they had no idea what they were doing when they started out, meaning they were inexperienced on how to make a movie. But Lofton literally had no idea what he was doing, and turned to UltraColor, a local film lab, who taught him how to load film and run his 16mm Arriflex camera. And once he had that down, he went out to the local airport and shot 747s landing and taking off for nearly two hours. From there, he was hooked and determined he would make a movie. A horror film seemed most viable and the easiest to sell. Something with the same bite, grisly body count, and local punch as one of his favorite films, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). But what signature weapon would his killer use?

Lofton would get his answer serendipitously, when he stopped to pick up a couple of friends for a lunch date. Now. These two friends just happened to work for a company that built wooden pallets. And on the fateful day Lofton arrived, these two men were playfully engaged in a portable nail-gun fight, popping off round after round of pending Tetanus shots at each other. With that, Lofton had his weapon and a nugget of an idea for his movie. And this nugget soon turned into an 80-page script of bloody revenge, murder and mayhem. And he also had a title: The Nail Gun Massacre (1985). And a tagline: Cheaper than a Chainsaw.

From there, Lofton was able to secure around $50,000 borrowed from family and friends -- his father is listed as an executive producer, and started gathering up a crew, which consisted mostly of Bill Leslie, who would serve as a co-director and cinematographer on the film. Beyond that it was pretty much all Lofton, who served as writer, producer, co-director, stunt coordinator, and casting director. He was also in charge of the surprisingly effective special effects.

Most of the “hits” were done in editing, and Lofton ground hundreds of nails down to glue onto his victims. And while this does breakdown in a few scenes, it worked well enough when combined with all the effective blood splatter. And I loved how he executed the deaths, turning the victims into still life marionettes with their limbs pinned to the background or themselves. There’s a great shock moment, too, when a woman raises her hand defensively and winds up with a nail through it that also sticks her hand to her face over her mouth, stifling her own scream, that is brutally awesome.

Most of the cast were culled from several local acting labs and amateur classes, explaining why all of them were making their screen debut, here. And they do the best they can with what Lofton gave them, ad-libbing 90% of the dialogue. Sadly, with the notable exception of Rocky Patterson, who went on to appear in R.O.T.O.R. (1987), Cyberstalker (1985) and Repligator (1996), The Nail Gun Massacre would also be the last and only movie a majority of them ever worked on.

Once everything was set and the haphazard production commenced, Lofton also found a patron saint of sorts in fellow DIY regional filmmaker, S.F. Brownrigg. Brownrigg broke into the business working for fellow schlockmeister Larry Buchanan on The Naked Witch (1961). He also helped out on Buchanan’s Texas-shot for TV American International remakes, editing Attack of The Eye Creatures (1965), and doing the sound-mixing on Zontar, the Thing from Venus (1966), Mars Needs Women (1967), and It's Alive! (1969). But in the 1970s Brownrigg would earn his own little personal niche in regional filmmaking lore with a series of brooding shockers littered with no-name casts, startling outbursts of violence, and surprise twist endings all topped off with a distinct local flare: Don't Look in the Basement (1973), Don't Hang Up (1974), Scum of the Earth (1974) and Keep My Grave Open (1977).

At the time of The Nail Gun Massacre’s production, Brownrigg had since retired from active filmmaking but was the current president of Century Studios, a Dallas based production facility, who offered the inexperienced Lofton all kinds of veteran tips and sage advice on how to keep costs down and his haphazard production moving forward in and around all the myriad traps and pitfalls that await all low-budget films and filmmakers.

But as filming ground on it became quite clear that Lofton’s script wasn’t working on any level -- as a whodunit mystery or a horror movie. The footage he had in the can wasn’t scary. In fact, people were pointing out all the unintentionally comedic moments showing up in the dailies. And so, realizing the film could no longer be taken seriously, and with no money available to go back and fix things, to salvage the production, Lofton made the decision to embrace these screw-ups and change the film’s course and destination midstream by playing up the laughs and screw-ups even more and make it a goof, abandoning the idea of a Paul Kersey by way of Jason Vorhees killer with an I Spit on Your Grave (1978) chaser for a cross between John Rambo and Freddy Krueger, meaning brace yourselves for a metric-ton of voice-modulated, bad nail-themed puns punctuating each kill.

Thus and so, 60-script pages still to be shot were unceremoniously tossed, and whatever continuity there was went right out the window with them as clues, characters, and subplots which appeared to be pivotal to the story suddenly weren’t and quickly fell to the wayside. Case in point: the latest occupants of Old Lady Bailey’s house; Maxine, John and Tom (Hazelbarth, Price, Ladeate), who get to stay there for free in exchange for fixing up the place, and whose misadventures have been woven into the plot since the beginning of the movie. Mrs. Bailey even keeps an open tab at the local lumberyard, owned and operated by Bubba Jenkins (Leland) and his sister, Linda (Meyer), where the group loads up on lumber and equipment for the renovations, including a nail-gun.

After they leave, a couple of drifters, Hal and Ben (Rudder, Bendall), and their girlfriends, Ann and Trish (York, Speer), wander by and ask Bubba if he’s hiring. He isn’t, but offers some people are currently renovating the old Bailey house and could possibly use some help. Once the directions are sorted and these strangers leave, Linda, who was the rape victim in the prologue, asks if they were construction workers. Her brother sneers an affirmative.

Okay then, well, that doesn’t bode well for these four people. And sure enough, when they arrive at the dilapidated house, Maxine and the others are off somewhere else. So, the two couples decide to have a picnic while waiting. Then, after a little reefer for desert, Hal and Ann go for a walk in the woods and ultimately have graphic sex against a tree (-- more on this in a sec), making them perfectly distracted targets for the killer.

When they don’t come back, Trish urges Ben to go and look for them only to wind up nailed to a tree. All alone, Trish is wigging out when Maxine and the others finally return. Once the bodies are discovered and the Sheriff takes over the crime scene, Maxine, John, and Tom, instead of getting the hell out of Dodge like any other sane person, shrug it off and start unpacking the supplies from the van, noting their nail-gun is missing (-- which makes one wonder if the reels are out of order). And after spending an inordinate amount of time and film on establishing the trio of Maxine, John and Tom, they are never heard from or referenced to again.

The Old Bailey place either, for that matter, as the scene then shifts to another construction site, where two more of the rapists are currently engaged in a nail-gun fight. (Whoa. Meta!) When recess ends and they get back to work, they’re ambushed by the killer, who murders one of them right away with several nails to the skull. 

Turning on the other man, who asks why this is happening, the killer says to think back to six months ago. And when the quarter finally drops, and the man pleads he only watched and apologizes for not stopping the rape, it’s too late and he’s turned into a tapestry, hung up on the wall.

At this point in my notes I had honestly lost count of the number of rapists the killer had already notched on his nail-gun -- whose identities weren’t established all that well to begin with, showing the director’s inexperience; and I think Lofton might’ve lost count, too. That, or the killer has completely gone off the rails as he next pounces on a couple having sex on the hood of a Fiat because the stick-shift kept getting in the way inside. Then, we jump to the suburbs, where the killer waits in ambush in a swimming pool, where he soggily springs into action and kills a man, who falls on top of his burning grill (-- note how the “dead” victim helpfully keeps himself from toppling completely over).

When the Sheriff questions the last victim’s daughter, he confirms the man and five other victims all worked the same construction site. Further investigation shows they were all accused of rape by Linda but, of course, they all walked due to a “lack of evidence.” And while he and Doc are piecing this together, the killer strikes again, taking out two stranded female motorists after they take a long walk into an abandoned farmstead looking for gas. (How the hell they couldn’t see the killer standing right in front of them is beyond me.)

Now. Before burning the majority of his script pages, I believe Lofton had intended for the killer to be Linda all along. At least that’s what he wanted audiences to think as despite the bulky outfit it betrays the feminine shape of the wearer rather easily and all too often. Joann Hazelbarth, who played Maxine, and also served as a line producer on The Nail Gun Massacre, spent most of the time in the get-up and did all the stunts. But Linda herself, Michelle Meyer, spent some time in the suit as well. But feeling he needed a last minute surprise twist, Lofton decided to make the killer Linda’s brother instead, which is a huge cheat.

And on top of the final twist on the killer’s identity, with his overall narrative thread of revenge shredded and unrecognizable, Lofton also had no idea how to end his movie. Luckily, his mother worked for a nearby gravel-works, who got him permission to shoot there. 

Thus, the location dictated the climax as Doc confronts Linda about the murders and they both realize it must’ve been Bubba, whom Linda describes as “being crazy.” And after a brief car chase, the killer wrecks the hearse into a mound of limestone, then flees on foot with Doc right behind him. And as Linda watches, Doc chases the killer up a crane, who loses his footing at the highest point and falls to his death. When the Sheriff arrives, Linda removes the killer’s helmet, confirming it was Bubba all along. Then, helmet in hand, she and Doc walk off into the sunset together.

After The Nail Gun Massacre was finally finished and went through several different limited and mass market releases on home video, Lofton started entertaining the notion that maybe there were two killers at work in the movie to help shore-up all the gaping plot-holes. It’s an interesting idea, with Linda killing the guilty and her brother killing all the others in an effort to carpet-bomb the victim pool independently to help keep his sister out of trouble. If this was Lofton’s intention, well, like every other plot thread it went absolutely nowhere. And the theory doesn’t hold much water on closer examination as we try to match victims to each individual killer. In the end, it doesn’t really matter whodunit as the bare bones of the original script is strung together by ad-libs and murder set-pieces. In fact, it’s kind of amazing the film ever got finished at all.

Making a film is a lot harder than it looks. Even I know that. I get it. And that’s why I can appreciate the efforts no matter how shoddy or dire the end results are on screen. By all reports The Nail Gun Massacre was a troublesome shoot as Lofton struggled with the daily rigors of production. Often times his amateur cast and crew failed to show up. This necessitated pressing Lofton’s grandmother into the movie as the grocery clerk. Apparently his grandparents owned the store, and that’s her reading directly from the script on the counter as she rings up Maxine. And while shooting in the woods near the Bailey house, there was a gun-range nearby and bullets wound up whizzing over their heads and impacting into nearby trees. Negotiations to get the shooters to cease broke down, and Lofton wound up calling the authorities. You can hear these actual gunshots during a couple of scenes, and one character even addresses it. I honestly didn’t find it distracting and just figured it was added production value to get a sense of life in backwater Texas: Shit-kicker verisimilitude.

And worse yet, after surviving the trials and tribulations of the three week shoot, while piecing his footage together Lofton discovered his film wasn't long enough, made no sense, and was missing several key transition scenes to make what he had in the editing bay make at least some semblance of sense. Thus, re-shoots were in order. The problem? Most of the actors involved were no longer answering his calls. This explains why several characters disappeared and several others just show up long enough to get killed.

But when Lofton finally got what he needed and started sending out screener tapes to distributors, most rejected it outright. And the few that nibbled demanded more nudity and sex scenes. And so, Lofton rounded-up his camera and redid several of the murders. And he might’ve gotten too carried away as the outtakes featured on the Synapse DVD come off as vintage hardcore Beaver loops. These additions also got Lofton in trouble with his grandma, too, who didn’t appreciate being roped into what she now believed was a “sex movie.” And the wife of the actor who played Hal, who gets killed after having sex with Ann in the woods, thought he really did have sex with the other woman for all the world to see and successfully sued for divorce upon the film’s release.

Anyhoo, after inserting the least explicit takes into the movie -- but still pretty damned explicit, the film finally found a home at Reel Movies International; a local distributor based out of Dallas run by Tom Moore. Here, Lofton was about to get another harsh lesson in filmmaking: Never trust the distributor, who’s creative bookkeeping, expense reports, and billing can make any promised percentage of profits for the filmmakers disappear. In fact, Lofton feared he would wind up owing RMI money and the disdain he has toward Moore in later interviews is palpable.

Once his contract expired with RMI, Lofton tried again with Magnum Entertainment, but wouldn’t provide the master until he was paid upfront. And this mistrust is why The Nail Gun Massacre was pretty rare and hard to see aside from those old VHS tapes for the longest time. When DVDs hit, Lofton released a limited edition on his own but would later sign on with Synapse, who released another limited special edition DVD but, again, he saw very little money from this. And after Lofton died, his estate let 88 Films put the feature out on Blu-ray. Thus and so, The Nail Gun Massacre is now readily available to see in multiple formats these days. And whether that’s a good or a bad thing is up to the viewer. I freely admit it’s not very good -- barely qualifying in the so bad it’s good criteria, but it does have a bizarre, down home and sleazy southern-fried charm to it that helps all of this nonsense go down a little easier.

It reminded me of when I was thirteen years old, chasing some cattle that got out through a shelter belt of evergreen trees and coming upon some old derelict telephone poles that had been stacked up here and left to rot by the county. In the tall grass, I did not see one of the crossbars lying in wait, a huge spike sticking straight up into the air until I put my foot through it. It hurt like hell, and I vividly remember being anchored to the block of wood as I fell, stuck, the nail head sticking out of the top of my shoe, covered in blood, playing havoc with my nerves and tendons, and the valiant efforts of my older brother to get me up and extract my appendage from the offending spike. It hurt worse than it sounds. Trust me.

Anyway, the point is that’s kind of a metaphor for finally watching The Nail Gun Massacre. It was painful, but I lived through it. And still have the scars to prove it. An unpleasant experience that I once had, makes a good story, that I would really never care to experience again.

Right before he died, Lofton talked of making a sequel, where Doc and Linda have a baby who grows up to be just like his uncle -- The Nail Gun Massacre 2: Son of a Gun, but this never came to pass. (There was also talk of a Movie Distributor Massacre but we’ll chalk that up to still being bitter.) Whether this is a good or bad thing is once again up to the viewer of the first one, the only film Lofton ever made. For while it’s not the worst movie ever committed to film, it is definitely one of the dumbest I have ever seen. And dumb by accident or dire circumstances that produced The Nail Gun Massacre is one thing, but dumb on purpose is a whole can of suck that I’d rather not contemplate.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween! 26 Days! 26 Films! 26 Reviews! And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage as The Fiasco Brothers and Yours Truly countdown from A to Z all October long! That's 14 reviews down with 12 more to go! Up Next: Once Upon a Time ... in Wade Williams' Basement.

The Nail Gun Massacre (1987) Futuristic Films :: Magnum Entertainment / EP: Linda Bass, T.L. Lofton / P: Terry Lofton / LP: Joann Hazelbarth / D: Terry Lofton, Bill Leslie / W: Terry Lofton / C: Bill Leslie / E: Lynn Leneau Calmes / M: Whitey Thomas / S: Rocky Patterson, Ron Queen, Beau Leland, Michelle Meyer, Jerry L. Nelson, Mike Coady, Staci Gordon, Randy Hayes, Thom Meyers, John Price, Charles Ladeate, Joann Hazelbarth, John Rudder, Shelly York, Michael Bendall, Connie Speer

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