Friday, September 20, 2013

Saturday the 14th

Horror spoofs are pretty common nowadays -- 2013 started out with Scary Movie V and A Haunted House -- but they are by no means new. When Universal started their series of monster movies, it wasn't long before Abbott and Costello started running into the monsters and mixing comedy with the creatures. And even when the horror movies got bloodier, the spoofs kept coming. The late 1970s and 1980s were a peak period for horror films, and so it should come as no surprise that there were a fair number of spoofs as well. Saturday the 14th takes an obvious riff on a horror film title, and was released in 1981, just a year after the original Friday the 13th.

The film has an interesting pedigree. It was produced by Julie Corman, whose last name should be familiar to any horror aficionado -- yes, she's the wife of Roger Corman, who produced and directed an unfathomable number of horror films of various levels of seriousness. It was the first film directed by Howard R. Cohen, but he came by the genre honestly, as he was also a screenwriter and besides this film, he had previously written a few b-movie horror films himself. Amusingly, his filmography as a writer includes both Vampire Hookers and Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer. Now that's range for you.

There are neither rainbows nor hookers here, but there are some curiously sun-proof vampires.

Despite the title reference, Saturday the 14th does not spoof slasher movies; instead, it's a creature feature centered around a family who inherit a cursed house. Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss play the clueless parents who persist in thinking that this creepy house will feel much more homey once some nice curtains are installed. The kids know better, of course, but the ditziness of the parents is reasonably amusing. Benjamin is particularly good as the father, who remains fairly blase to the supernatural even once he realizes the house is genuinely infested with monsters. Most of the time is spent on the kids, with the older daughter played by Kari Michaelsen, and the young son played by Kevin Brando. Brando, who is really the star of the film -- being the one who unleashes the cursed book and who has to fix it -- does an admirable job as young Billy. While his delivery is occasionally stiff, it works out in his favor, as the character is often telling bald-faced lies to cover up his misdeeds. Even when it's clear that the awkwardness is sometimes from the actor, the nature of the lines allows the audience to gloss over this minor issue.

The most fun to be had in this film, however, is from the side characters. Hunting for the book of evil are a pair of vampires, played by Jeffrey Tambor and Nancy Lee Andrews. While Andrews was nearly a one-film wonder (this being her only feature role), she does fairly well as the shrewish bride of the vampire. Tambor, of course, is more recognizable to many of today's viewers, and his character Waldemar is going to feel rather familiar, as this dolorous Dracula is a typical Tambor role in personality. There are a lot of words that could describe a typical vampire, but "mopey" isn't one of them; it doesn't produce any big laughs, but it does add another level to the humor in the film.

I regret to inform you your house is haunted by a manic-depressive monster.

Severn Darden plays Van Helsing, called in to deal with the house's bat problem. Most of the humor in the film is worth a smile at most, but Darden's daffy supernatural exterminator is terrific. Nearly every line he rattles off is worth a laugh. Part of it is just the goofy nature of the lines, which range from malapropisms to bizarre failings at social interactions, but a lot of it is in Darden's delivery. There's a great deal of enthusiasm in it, as well as a lot of credibility. As off-kilter as the lines are, Darden delivers them in a way that makes it seem as if Van Helsing really meant exactly what he said.

Being a creature feature, a few words have to be said about the monsters. While most of the monsters are unrecognizable, aside from a take on the creature from the black lagoon, they are still fairly well done. The creature designs are inventive, and while these are just typical rubber-suit monsters, they good enough for a low-budget horror spoof. While nobody's going to be frightened by the film's ersatz Gillman, he doesn't look completely ridiculous while chasing Kari Michaelsen around the house.

Overall, Saturday the 14th isn't a terrific film. It's difficult to make a truly great horror spoof -- perhaps because it's difficult to make a great horror movie or a great spoof separately, let alone when combining the two genres. The plot has moments where it doesn't make a lot of sense, and at best the film reaches b-movie levels of quality. But monster movie fans will find something to appreciate here, as this is certainly an affectionate parody of the genre. And the laughs, while not constant, are present enough to make the film enjoyable.

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