Thursday, October 10, 2013

Halloween Havoc: SHADOWS RUN BLACK (1986)

There is an urban myth that we humans only use 10-20% of our brains. Scientists use 65% of their brains laughing about this alleged fact, 20% being annoyed by it, while the other 15% tries to figure out why this act of hilarity would cause one's buttocks to detach (true story, I read it on the internet). There are many scientific reasons that those men and women of long beards and labcoats have given to prove how mindless this myth is, but I have my own: I forget which movies I have watched over time. Not all of them, just a lot of them.

Clearly the brain has a certain amount of cabinets in the File Room (located next to the Microfiche Oblongata). You can put whatever you want in there, but after a while, some stuff has got to be junked in whole or mostly in part. My memory of seeing NINE DEATHS OF THE NINJA (1985) in a raucous Manhattan theater takes up half a drawer, so something needed to go. The name of the first girl who allowed me to slide into home base? Not a freakin' clue.

When Will sent me an e-mail asking me if I had seen SHADOWS RUN BLACK, I was pretty sure I had seen it, twice in fact. I just couldn't remember a damn thing about it. Obviously I needed to update my files. The plot outline for that great novel I was going to write? Gone. Now I remember what I forgot about this movie: it's not very memorable.

Back in '86 you could damn near release anything horror related on VHS. Video rental shops (remember those? I do. My brother's birthday? Nope.) couldn't jam them out fast enough and really all you needed to do was have someone vaguely menacing in the promo art and you were set! Following this train of thought, we have career editor Howard Heard's first and last directorial effort. A small town is in the midst of a rash of killings by an unknown predator who has been dubbed "The Black Angel". Legendary cop Rydell King (William J. Kulzer, who also produced) has a chip on his shoulder because years ago he tracked down his daughter's kidnapper/killer, and comes on board to help out by completely taking over the case, yelling at potential witnesses and generally flying off the handle at every opportunity.

After the killer takes out a couple up in a mountain cabin with a wrench and a car-hood (both off camera), the cops haul in a college prostitute/junkie named Lee (Terry Congie), who looks so healthy and clean-scrubbed, she'd make soccer moms envious. King is convinced that she knows who the killer is because the killer has been targeting members of her circle of college-girl hooker/druggies! After King gets through giving her the Joe Friday routine, Lee finally gets to go back home... to her birthday party! This is exactly the kind of birthday party I think of when I think "junkie/hooker", complete with magician (John "Magic" Wright) and his stand-up bass playing assistant.

Lee (who suddenly has a completely different hairstyle) helps out with a card-trick involving a deck of tarot cards. Of course the card she picks is the death card! As if that wasn't bad enough, her boyfriend Jimmy (Kevin Costner) is behaving like a drunken asshole. So much of a douchebag is Jimmy, that he actually wants to stay and watch the lamest magic show ever, rather than go skinny dipping with Lee. Naturally after stripping down and swimming around in the buff, our black clad killer shows up and strangles her to death. Now who is the number one suspect? The boyfriend of course!

The press, apparently unaware that the killer already has a nick-name, declares him the "Co-Ed Strangler", in spite of the fact that only one of his victims has been strangled and King is now so frothed up about the killings and finding Jimmy that he is in danger of mussing his hairpiece.

This sort of leads us to the main plot (30 minutes into the film), a girl named Judy who lives with her psychotically protective, older brother Morgan (Shea Porter) and his wife is being stalked by the Black Angel / Co-Ed Strangler. Clearly the killer is a fan of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), as when he calls Judy up all he can think of to say is "I'm coming to get you, Judy." In reaction to this Morgan flips out and beats up Judy's wimpy, allegedly black boyfriend because he's "dangerous". This is a fumbling attempt at making the audience think that there is another possibility for the identity of the killer, as is the scene where Morgan's wife has an affair with his co-worker. Of course, it's so clumsily done you won't even realize that it's an attempt at a red herring until it is suggested out loud at the end of the movie!


The rest of the movie is essentially scene after scene of badly acted, pointless conversations with references made to the laughably absurd prostitution/drug ring, interspersed with some of the most amazingly gratuitous nudity ever presented in a slasher film. No joke, if there was a Golden Bush Award, this movie would totally score. The killer has an amazing ability to show up as soon as one of the girls on his list has removed their clothes. Whether it's because they are about to or have finished with seemingly innocuous sex with their significant other, or just because a women steps out of the shower to go downstairs completely naked to find out why their roommate isn't answering them, he's more punctual than a Berlin train. Also, making coffee is apparently something best to be avoided while in a state of complete undress when you are trying to avoid a killer. Not that any of these girls seem in any way concerned for about the madman that is slaughtering all of their friends! There is so much full-frontal female nudity that it is rather easy to forget what exactly what kind of film you are watching. It almost feels like one of those '60s nudie thrillers like Harold Lea's THE FAT BLACK PUSSYCAT (1963), which has roughly the same plot, if you can call it that.

Made in 1981 and unreleased until 1986 when Kostner was just about to become a big Hollywood name with THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987), the murders are incredibly tame and usually off-screen and it doesn't take a lick of brainpower to figure out who the killer is well before we hit the halfway mark. It is truly amazing that this was made by someone who made their living as an editor. In addition to staggeringly wooden performances, rock-bottom production values, cinematography that makes 35mm look like Super16, the movie looks like it was cobbled together using every scrap of footage that was shot, whether it makes any sense or not. There are huge lapses of continuity, leaving us with a movie could be cut from 88 minutes down to 28 minutes and it wouldn't make any less sense. We don't even find out what the killer's motivation was! We find out who the killer is, but we are left to come up with our own explanations as to why the murders actually happened!

So now you're saying "but is this movie worth my valuable time to watch?" If the screengrabs can't answer that question, I've got nothing for you.

Moments of Clarity:

2 Reactions:

  1. Thanks for another insightful and entertaining review Thomas. The screen grabs compelled me to pick up the DVD and I wasn’t disappointed. There was just enough WTF to go along with the gratuitous nudity to make it worthwhile. But I won’t be surprised if I’ve completely forgotten the film by next year.

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  2. What film?
    Seriously, glad you enjoyed it, the movie is a mess, but it's certainly not without its charms.

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