The Great Cannon Film Watch-Through: New Year’s Evil

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An explanation of what I’m doing.

Details:

New Year’s Evil

Directed by Emmett Alston

Featuring Roz Kelly, Kip Niven, and Chris Wallace

Released 12/26/1980

IMDB Synopsis (via SgtSP@aol.com) During a New Year’s Eve celebration, a Punk Rock & New Wave show host gets a phone call saying that when New Year’s strikes in each time zone, someone will be murdered–and she will be the last one.

Minutes of Note:

02:34- If only the Do Not Disturb sign was posted outside the door, this whole mess could have been avoided. And don’t hotel doors lock automatically?

03:40- First kill. Yvonne’s dead! But who’s responsible? Very problematic plot point moving forward.

05:36- Long introduction of the punks in the drop top cruising down the street is quite engaging and well-lensed. Certainly a vibe is crated but one that doesn’t come back around. Maybe best sequence in the film. Sadly, Yoram Globus is misspelled as “Yorum”.

06:30- Great script writing & editing: “Tickets. Tickets, lets have your tickets. Tickets, lets have your tickets.”

09:14- I love how the extras are directed to nudge close and tangle their arms together to give the impression a baker’s dozen is actually a crowd of hundreds.

09:48- The TV can talk to you?!? “You bet, Blaze!”

10:52- The movie is sort of ruined here. One, we get a shot of the killer’s face that drains a great deal of suspense, even when the big reveal occurs later. Two, he might have the most on the nose name ever, “call me Evil.” Was Bad Guy already taken?  Three, Blaze calls him “Mr. Evil” perhaps inspiring the gag from Austin Powers. Four, Evil establishes an MO that is both distant (killing someone during each timezone’s New Year’s) and vague (are these people in those time zones? Or just people close to Blaze? Or both? Or neither?) The associations are off and for there to be suspense and fear the specifics need to be clear. Stakes need to be crystal. And what about that first kill of Yvonne? Was that part of Evil’s MO or was that incidental? Or something else…?

14:01- A Friday the 13th aural cue is attempted, you know, the “ha-ha-ha-cha-cha-cha” thing. Only here it sounds like someone kicking back after a sip in a pop commercial.

14:46- Between Evil’s knit-cap (viz Jack Nicholson) and the mental institute’s inmates, I like to think of this as an alternate telling of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

18:44- Audience Shaming.

21:21- Does Blaze’s son have a headache or just hates the shitty New Wave music he’s watching on TV?

23:32- The second kill but perhaps the first done by Evil and the first to correspond to a New Year’s countdown (EST). So, how is this nurse close to Blaze? Who is she? You know what, no time for questions. MOSH PIT!

24:58- Amazing dialogue: “This is Evil. Remember me?” Oh, no I confused you with the other guy named Evil using a voice changer.

26:55- I’ll chalk up the closet and swinging light bulb (and the discovery of a semi-hidden corpse) as a clear Halloween callback. Nice cross cutting between the dead nurse and the sirens though.

27:56- “You think I have a mental disorder.” Oh, really?

28:23- What?

30:42- Kip Niven’s hair, outfit, and fake mustache all scream 70s porn. The best porn, after all.

30:57- The beginning of the usage of ‘creep’ that will, *ahem* creep into many Golan/Globus films, culminating in Death Wish 3.

32:55- You can’t smoke indoors!

33:59- The cops plan isn’t all that bad but it does carry whiffs of the mayor from Jaws. But, how do they imagine Evil will slip up? He’ll accidentally give away his position if he calls Blaze again? Perhaps the police can track his call but so far he’s only called from pay phones (not that the cops know this) but shouldn’t that be a given? Also, shouldn’t it be clear that Evil has already messed up since he killed a random nurse at the sanatorium, which isn’t a person close to Blaze like he’s promised? Unless, Evil’s just being literal and is killing people in close proximity, and not closeness in terms of affection.

34:14- Erik Estrada’s place!?!??!

39:03- Nervous diarrhea?

41:34- The third kill, done with a plastic bag. Classic. But couldn’t Evil have taken the weed out? Again, this kill has zero connection to Blaze. It’s just some lady. And the fourth kills is close behind. Ditto.

43:41- “Shut up, bitch!” Another great example of classic script writing. Wordsmiths.

45:21- Genuinely creepy. Well lit. Well shot.

46:02- I think the biggest stumbling block for suspense is that this movie takes place in LA. All the bodies found are attributed to Evil, yet the cops have no way of knowing if Evil was behind any of these killings. Head Cop even states that Evil’s MO is slashing the victims, even though Evil stated a different MO, which he hasn’t fully kept to. But the tape recorded parts ostensibly documenting the murders (full of deep, heavy breathing and screaming) could have been pornos for all the cops know. Linking killings in Haddonfield, Camp Crystal Lake, or wherever Nancy Thompson lived works because these are small communities. If someone was found in a dumpster, and someone else was found in a freezer, you bet there was a pattern. In LA, who can connect the dots in such a short amount of time?

48:40- The scene at the drive-in needs to be a bigger part of the film. This is a place to get meta about the genre and could have elevated this film to Wes Craven’s Scream a decade and a half before it came out. But, despite some promise, the setup falls flat.

52:29- “We can even get it on if you want to. I won’t make any kind of fuss.” Knife erection.

55:42- No fifth kill, even though it’s midnight Mountain Time.

57:23- WHAT?!?

57:47- Obligatory Son of Sam/ Zodiac reference. Hey, it was the late 70s/early 80s, after all. White people be panicking.

01:01:07- Usually you don’t want to draw attention to yourself if you’re a serial killer. Brandishing a gun usually attracts eyeballs.

01:03:33- Oh, that mask… That faux-Carpenter score…that track suit.

01:04:00- So, here’s the reveal that Evil is Blaze’s husband, Richard. Shocking. But we’ve followed him this entire film. Even though we know things Blaze doesn’t, which should create suspense, so much time has been spent on Richard (Evil) that there isn’t any sort of tension here. For all intents and purposes, he has been our protagonist.

01:06:42- Did Richard bring in that steamer trunk full of elevator equipment? Or was it left for him? Or are there deleted scenes on the Blu-Ray?

01:07:56- Blaze made such a big deal about changing her costume but seems to be wearing the same outfit with a little striped cowl fitted over it. What?

01:08:48- “It’s still going down!” I’m sure whacking buttons on a elevator hundreds of times a second doesn’t make it function any better.

01:10:24- This entire murder spree might have only been due to Richard being quite proud of his boom box and wanting to prove that. “Instant replay. A miracle of modern technology…I’m Evil.”

01:11:17- Ah, yes, misogyny. “Ladies are not very nice people.”

01:11:50- Richard confesses to the first killing. So, he snuck into the hotel, killed Yvonne, then left secretly, created a trail of destruction across southern California with a knife and voice changer, only to spend twenty minutes sneaking back into the same hotel he was originally in?

01:17:58- “There’s some fucking shit going on here.” You said it, not Steve Harvey.

01:18:16- What is Richard’s plan here? He has Blaze hanging on the underside of the elevator but to what end? What’s the goal? I’m willing to accept crazy formulations from a Michael Myers or Pamela Voorhees but this seems like such a vague death (when Blaze is the ultimate goal) to be inconceivable. Richard has shown to be calculating (he loves his audio recorder) and quick to murder. This isn’t Saw.

01:19:39- “Call an ambulance. Be careful.” Great script, just perfect. Without that dialogue the cops chasing Richard would only be moderately careful.

01:19:50- Reminiscent of John McClane on the roof in Die Hard. Did John McTiernan rip off this movie?

01:20:13- What?

01:21:13- Richard’s turned into a dummy!

01: 21: 24- Carpenter score rip-off

01:22:48- Another instance of good lensing in this film with Blaze loaded into the ambulance in long, close takes. But to what end? The shot is well staged but I don’t see for what purposes.

01:23:08- “She’s ready. Let’s go.” OK, great. But does no one see the guy driving this ambulance covered by a Richard Nixon mask? Bye.

Reflection:

So for my first entry in the Great Cannon Film Watch-Through this is a bit of a misnomer. There are a number of Golan/Globus productions before this film hit theaters. Given the time of year, however, it feels appropriate to start here since so many of Cannon Films’ shortcomings are wrapped up in this production.

New Year’s Evil makes a great deal of sense on paper. What doesn’t come through is the execution. Released the day after Christmas, the movie fits in the slasher glut propagated by John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), a glut that continued until Wes Craven shot the genre with some wake up juice in Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). At the time, every date on the calendar received its own horror treatment, a trend lovingly sent up in Eli Roth’s mock trailer for Thanksgiving.

A New Year’s themed horror film has potential. Ostensibly the date is an ending, a closing, a winding down of affairs, a blank slate come next year. For a murder/horror mystery, the date is right up there with Halloween and Christmas for connotations of suspense and anticipation. The year’s ending? So is your life! It also benefits from the juxtaposition that Christmas themed horror films (think Black Christmas, Gremlins, or even the recent Krampus) provide, a time of celebration counterbalanced by an intrusion of horror.

What short changes this film is the focus.

Horror films are scary not only because of the kills. What makes them scary is the lead up to each kill. That’s suspense. In a very Hitchcockian sense, what makes something suspenseful is different than what makes something filled with fear. Fear has a close association with suspense but the two are not identical. Suspense is something crafted through the prolonged delay of answering questions. Fear is an impulse. The former is crafted, the latter is instinctual. This is why a jump scare is so impacting on a first viewing but rarely lands a second time, while suspense is a gift that keeps on giving. Who hasn’t watched Saw and thought: “they’ll get out of that bathroom this time.”

Good horror thrives on suspense. It is the means to scares, not an end in itself. Michael Myers is scary because so little is known about him or his motives. Jack Torrance is scary because we get no interior access to what’s happening in his head. Freddy Krueger is scary because so little is known about what he can do and how he will strike. Even Norman Bates is scary because we’re misdirected from his intentions and backstory. Anthony Perkins embodies the character as a giant question mark, a nice guy with something ineffably off. “We all go a little mad sometimes,” is not only an ominous line but an ellipse, a promise of things to come.

The suspense in Psycho originally comes from what Marion Crane will do with the money she’s stolen. Will she return it? Will she be caught? What sort of punishment will she receive? We don’t know these answers when they’re asked so the audience can speculate. For all the talk of craft, the most powerful driver of suspense is actually the imagination of the audience. The film’s first act is a wonderful bit of narrative misdirection that:

  1. Establishes a clear victim for the first kill
  2. Lays the groundwork that things are not what they appear.

Psycho, as audiences might assume from the first act, is a film about a frustrated woman stealing a bag of cash, but, it’s not. Just the way Norman Bates was assumed to be a normal guy, but isn’t. Just the way Mother was assumed to be alive, but isn’t. The narrative focus in Psycho is purposefully misdirected for an effect. And for all the switch-backing and deception, all the rules are in place and properly focused on to achieve the desired suspense.

What I’m getting at in a long winded way is that New Year’s Evil doesn’t know what to focus on so it doesn’t know what it hopes to achieve. Perhaps the best sequence in the film is right at the beginning during the credits with the punk rockers in the convertible. It’s a timely flourish but I was near certain that these would be our focal characters. We’d come to know these louts and watch them get picked off one by one in a hotel on New Year’s Eve, giving it a vibe akin to Assault on Precinct 13 or Die Hard.

Instead, the kids are little more than stage dressing for an odd family drama between Los Angeles radio DJ Blaze, her Norman Bates-esque husband Richard, and their troubled son Derek, set during a life broadcast of Blaze’s show.

There is a genuine attempt at suspense in New Year’s Evil when Evil (the killer alter ego of Richard) calls in to Blaze’s show and lays out his MO: that he will kill someone “close” to the DJ on each US timezone’s New Year’s culminating in Blaze’s murder on 12:00 am Pacific Standard Time. This lays out the rules. The audience knows what the stakes are and the suspense is derived from whether Evil will accomplish this task and whether Blaze will survive the night.

However, these rules are already undermined in the actual first sequence of the film when Blaze’s assistant Yvonne is murdered. This kill (which Richard confesses to but, in another lapse in focus, might actually have been caused by Derek, though we see him walking away from Yvonne’s room before the kill) doesn’t correspond with the MO which will be the focus and suspense for the film. Furthermore, does this first kill imply Richard was secretly in the hotel, killed Yvonne, then snuck out to commit more murders, only to sneak back into the hotel after its been sealed by police due to his threats?

Talk about inefficient.

Now, perhaps this is a Psycho-like misdirect, demonstrating that Richard-as-Evil doesn’t keep to his word. But, that doesn’t work since Evil is slavishly devoted to killing at each stroke of midnight, perhaps best demonstrated during the Central Standard Time kills. The guy has grabbed two women from a bar on false pretenses and is visibly agitated and annoyed when they’re stuck in traffic, thereby possibly preventing him from killing on time and sending the recorded screams to Blaze on-air. Instead of signaling unpredictability, like Jack Torrance, it signals ineptitude. He can’t even plan ahead for traffic. Also, he kills no one during New Year’s on Mountain Time, further spoiling his MO.

Coupled with that is the nature of who is killed. Evil promises to kill people close to Blaze before killing her. The only people he kills (aside from Yvonne which didn’t adhere to his MO) are a bunch of random LA dwellers.When Laurie Strode’s friends are all offed in Halloween there’s an impact because she has a connection to them. Blaze likely has as much sympathy for the victims of these kills as someone reading about a fatal accident on the expressway.

Returning to my main thrust, the focus does this film in. Way too much time is spent following Richard around as he commits these kills. Based off screen time alone, Richard has a real shot at being the film’s focal character. The elongated chase scene between Richard (dressed as a priest) and a random gang of unruly bikers that attempt to hunt him down for no good reason through a drive-in movie theater is perhaps confirmation of this. This diminishes the menace of Evil and loosely places the audience’s sympathies with him. Though he’s a killer, we see him as vaguely charming, tall, athletic, and concerned for his safety in a Patrick Bateman sort of way: a crazy guy, in a crazy world, forced to do crazy things.

The film’s focus is off and we end up not feeling all that sympathetic towards Blaze and not all that frightened of Richard. It’s muddled and, because of the focus, not scary, a death knell for any horror film, especially a slasher. Though Richard, as he attempts to kill Blaze, conforms to the retrograde gender politics of late 70s/early 80s slasher films (slasher villains are inherently conservative in their sexuality. Why else does the virgin always survive?) it isn’t convincing because he hasn’t kept to his MO and we’ve focused for far too long on him. There’s no suspense. It’s like seeing the shark from Jaws every two minutes.

Again, on paper this film might have worked. A lot of Cannon Films worked on paper and it’s a tribute to Golan and Globus’s salesmanship that they got so many films off the ground and in cinemas based solely on a pitch delivered on the fly. There are a few charms to this film but, in the end, it is a mixture of ideas that never quite land.

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