Blood Rage is a goofy little number which peddles horror the way Head and Shoulders peddles shampoo. Originally titled Slasher and later renamed Nightmare at Shadow Woods, the movie is actually set on Thanksgiving, which begs the question: where on Earth is the tried-and-tested holiday season title? When it comes to commercialism, nothing touches giallo’s bastard offspring for sheer, unabashed cynicism. By 1983, we’d already had Black Christmas, Halloween, Friday the 13th, Christmas Evil, New Year’s Evil and Mother’s Day, but what about Thanksgiving? 1981‘s Home Sweet Home aka Slasher in the House, also set on Thanksgiving, had already left the giblets in the proverbial turkey by failing to tap into the holiday-themed title, and though it wasn’t uncommon for an ’80s horror to experiment with a plethora of titles in order to appeal to a wide range of markets, on home shores Thanksgiving was a season in desperate need of exploiting. I mean, what’s wrong with Slice the Turkey or The Thanksgiving Killer? Not the greatest titles ever conceived but Slasher? Nightmare at Shadow Woods? What’s seasonal about that? The fact that this was director John Grissmer’s first movie since 1977‘s Scalpel and his last movie…well, ever, isn’t surprising given its commercial misgivings.
Asides from a seemingly endless string of holiday-themed slashers, by 1983 the sub-genre was becoming oversaturated as a whole. Two years prior it had already been subjected to the spoof treatment courtesy of Mickey Rose’s desperately unfunny Student Bodies, which no doubt had a bearing on the slasher going forward as filmmakers looked for ways to make the violence more palatable. Though there was still an emphasis on the kind of amoral slaughter that would soon plunge the genre into disrepute, its various transgressions were becoming increasingly self-aware, and not in the subtle way spearheaded by the likes of Hitchcock’s Psycho, but in an overt, censor-defying fashion that swapped cynical murder for slapstick violence.
Blood Rage‘s initial 1983 theatrical release came at a precipice, coinciding with a censorship crusade that stripped the film of its gruesome embellishments until Prism Entertainment rescued it from the MPAA’s pitiless expurgation. By 1987, the slasher had undergone the kind of metamorphosis that turned a cynical vacuum of vivisection into a sparkling wink of self-knowing. Sam Raimi’s quasi Evil Dead sequel Dead by Dawn — a movie that took self-reflexive splatter to unprecedented levels as its predecessor rotted in the bowels of commercial purgatory — was only two months old by the time Blood Rage received a largely uncut home video release.
When Blood Rage was finally able to get its bludgeoned corpse through the rental door, the timing couldn’t have been better. 1987 introduced us to such kitsch classics as David A. Prior’s aerobics-based slice-and-dice Killer Workout and Jackie Kong’s absurd, cannibalism-to-go comedy-horror Blood Diner, and with 1988‘s Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers just around the corner the horror genre had become an open canvas for cavalier insanity. Even commercial juggernaut Fred Krueger would take his first steps to mainstream tomfoolery in February ’87, ditching the perverse sadism for a series of crowd-pleasing one-liners that would kick-start the character’s dubious descent into stand-up comedy. For many, the late-80s marked a further decline from the American golden age of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween, but for others it was a glorious time where anything went on the home video market, resulting in the kind of era-specific oddities that would become cult classics in horror circles.
Something akin to Sam Speigel’s slightly superior Intruder, Blood Rage has the episodic feel of a terrestrial television show, with cheap sets, heavily-lacquered hairstyles and unapologetic melodrama swimming in a deluge of blood and guts. If you’ve ever in your boredom wondered what it would be like to unleash a psychotic killer on the set of Dallas, then wonder no more. All you have to do is watch this movie. Grissmer’s grue-filled treat is a garish absurdity from top to bottom, from the distinctly unimaginative title to a tagline that references A Nightmare on Elm Street for no other reason than to sponge off Krueger’s Dream Warriors popularity. The movie is smarter than your average slice of 80s insanity, though playing dumb is often its trump card. Forget characterisation and interesting narrative developments. This is an openly camp display of genre awareness that plays out like a soap opera rerun — though it’s hard to imagine the film’s psychotic protagonist appearing on the cover of TV Guide. If bloodsoaked silliness is on your Thanksgiving menu, then this is the brand of cranberry sauce you’ve been searching for, though those who like their murder deadly serious may prefer to find their horror fix elsewhere.
That’s not to say the movie isn’t violent. In fact, Blood Rage is daytime melodrama in essence alone. After all, even the unscrupulous JR Ewing is above leaving decapitated heads hanging like wreaths on your doorstep, and however racy Dallas‘ more salacious moments, you’d be hard-pressed to run into the likes of Louise Lasser’s morally corrupt single mum, Maddy, who instigates this whole grisly affair by making out with a misogynistic pig at a drive-in movie while twins Todd and Terry sleep soundly in the back seat. This is 1974, and Maddy is understandably worried about waking her boys and exposing them to her salacious and highly misguided rendezvous with a bloke who seems but a rejection away from domestic violence, and she is right to be. Moments later, the two terrors climb out of the car and go wandering, one of them deciding to bury a hatchet in the skull of a teenager making out with his girlfriend in the backseat of his car. A crowd of people gather to find the two boys covered in blood, but which of them is the evil twin?
Thirteen years later and the long-suffering Dr. Berman (producer Marianne Kanter, who would be forced into the role at the last minute after the original actress neglected to turn up) is convinced that it isn’t Terry, even though the poor lad has spent his entire childhood inside a mental asylum. Meanwhile, twin brother Tony has been living the life of Riley as a popular high school jock with a trophy girlfriend. Berman has voiced her concerns to Maddy, but she is buried beneath so much self-delusion that she is either an incredibly talented actress desperate for a payday or a real-life manic-depressive halfway into a bottle of scotch. Research tells me that she was once married to Woody Allen, so it may very well be both. Inevitably Todd escapes, and Terry uses this as an excuse to go on the kind of killing spree that more than a decade of pent-up bloodlust will inspire, safe in the knowledge that he can once again pin the massacre on his downtrodden sibling. Mark Soper plays both the egomaniacal Terry and his pallid brother, Todd, so hats off to him for lighting up a cast of mostly teenage fodder, the actor often overemphasising dialogue like a hair model sent mad by a cornucopia of cosmetics commercials.
Terry is the kind of villain we cheer on rather than flee in fear, a meta heartthrob who allows moviegoers to shed the hockey mask and vicariously purge. This is knowing junk for the MTV generation, the kind that should be consumed with a six-pack with absolutely no pretensions, as blood-spattered popcorn speaks to the kind of bloodthirsty teenage audience that left a generation fearing for their children’s sanity. But the madness doesn’t end with Blood Rage‘s resident killer. Overacting is highly encouraged here, and there are some truly astonishing offbeat quirks along the way, particularly when a desperate Maddy prattles on the telephone for 4 intermittent scenes or manically races around the house pushing a vacuum cleaner as news of her son’s escape becomes a long, drawn-out reality. Maddy’s descent into madness is quite the spectacle, a Day-Glo prelude to Ellen Burstyn’s catastrophic breakdown in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, a movie which Lasser actually starred in (ironically as one of the gossiping sunbathers consumed by a Days of Our Lives schedule that is redolent of this movie).
This is deeply harebrained stuff, though traditional slasher fans with an aversion to silliness will still find plenty of graphic leftovers to feast upon, with brutal decapitations, poolside slayings and mutilated corpses adding to the almost relentless death and destruction packed into a meagre 82 minutes. Blood Rage also features cinema’s first ever condom dealer (Ted Raimi in a brief cameo debut), a heinous creature who makes his scratch off the back of other people’s safe sex, and if that isn’t worth the price of admission then I don’t know what is.