Sunday, March 23, 2014

Rock n' Roll Nightmare (1987)

The Movie: At an isolated Canadian farmhouse; mysterious, demonic forces suddenly appear and slaughter a family of three. After standing unused for ten years, some new occupants arrive. John Triton (body builder, b-movie actor and front man for various heavy metal groups John-Mikl Thor), and his hair metal group the Tritonz, have come for an extended stay to create material for a new album and hopefully get themselves out of the slump they’ve found themselves in. Triton’s reasoning is that they’re away from all the distractions of civilization; although apparently Toronto, a center of culture, is just down the road. The rest of the group isn’t so enthusiastic. They include: Stig (Jim Cirile), is the asshole drummer, who has brought his uber-bitch girlfriend Lou Anne (Jillian Peri). Lead guitarist Roger Eburt (Frank Dietz) has brought his new wife Mary (Liane Abel), and they are using this as their honeymoon. Nerdy bassist Max (David Lane) and Dee Dee (Denise Dicandia), the only female band member, have been making eyes at each other, but so far been too shy to do anything about it. Rounding out the group are Randy (Teresa Simpson), Triton’s seemingly perpetually unsatisfied girlfriend, and Phil (Adam Fried, uncredited), the geeky, nebbish manager for the band. You know, I’m no musician, but I already see two or three problems with this setup; and they have nothing to do with the demonic forces infesting the house. Nevertheless, we’ll go with it for now.

The Tritonz settle in, but almost immediately get set upon by the demons. One by one, unnoticed by anyone else until it’s too late, the Tritonz and their paramours get killed and/or possessed. However, not all is what it appears to be, and John Triton has a few surprises of his own…

The Review:

Yes… that’s where I’ve seen that nerdy bass player."

I’m not going to sugar coat this, Rock ‘n Roll Nightmare is a terrible movie in almost every particular. Written and produced by, not to mention starring, John-Mikl Thor; this movie is obviously an amateur project with a microscopic budget, with everything that entails. However, it is also a movie that I get a lot of enjoyment from; and that I make a point of rewatching every so often.

The script is full of horror movie clich├ęs, inconsistencies, and plot holes you could drive a truck through. For example, the farmhouse and grounds look rather well maintained after ten years of abandonment; and if it was abandoned that long, how the hell was a recording studio set up in the barn, much less one where people like Alice Cooper have worked? The characters, like any group of slasher movie meat, are completely oblivious to what’s going on around them until it’s too late. In fact, also like in the majority of slasher movies since 1980, for the most part they seem to mainly be motivated by the goal of getting into each other’s pants.

Added to this is the typical amateur lack of pacing. Just after the beginning credits we get an overly long scene of the band’s van driving to the farmhouse. Seriously, we just see the van driving while music plays. And speaking of music, this was actually Thor’s band at the time, and there are at least two or three full performances of some of their songs. It’s definitely not great music, to say the least. Having said that, I’m not ashamed to admit that I got a hold of the movie’s soundtrack when I found that it was available, and that I still can’t get enough of the song played over the final battle. Take that, good taste!

The effects are obviously very low budget, consisting of rubbery monster masks, the kind of makeup you can buy around Halloween, and some crude puppetry. One of my personal favorite parts of this movie is the extremely phallic, demonic sock puppets (that’s honestly the best way I can describe them) that seem to make up the majority of the minions of darkness, and that I, personally, find way too cute to be in any way scary or threatening. The question of the gore effects can be answered with the question ‘what gore effects?’ Nearly all the deaths are off-screen, and even the one or two that we do see make it clear that this project didn’t have the money for a proper horror movie death scene.

The acting talents on display range from slim to none. There are a (very) few exceptions, which I will get to shortly, but overall these really aren’t actors. Rock ‘n Roll Nightmare tries to compensate with everybody’s favorite exploitation movie fallback; gratuitous nudity. Unfortunately, these are, overall, people you really don’t want to see naked. I’m sure there are quite a few women, and even some men, who would greatly appreciate some of the scenes of Thor. However, as a straight male with very definite aesthetic preferences, it doesn’t do anything for me.

So why do I get so much enjoyment out of this movie if it’s so terrible? Two reasons. The first is the ending. I am not going to spoil it for you, but the climax of the movie makes the rest of it worthwhile. The big surprise twist is just weird, inspired, and batshit enough to make up for all the crap leading up to it; and it actually provides a logical (within the plot) explanation for all the overused horror movie tropes and a number (though by no means all) of the plot holes and discrepancies. The climactic battle that follows pulls out all the stops on the crappy special effects. There are a lot of reviews online that will spoil the twist for you, that happened to me before I saw it, but they really won’t do a thing. This is one of those things that has to be seen to be believed, and being told beforehand won’t prepare you for it.

The other major element that Rock n’ Roll Nightmare has going for it, despite all of its shortcomings, is John-Mikl Thor himself. He’s not a great actor by any stretch, but his unfeigned enthusiasm for the project shines through whenever he’s on screen. I learned young that when an artist of any kind is truly enjoying his work, that, more often than not, goes a long way toward covering for any deficiencies said work might otherwise have. I would argue that Rock n’ Roll Nightmare serves as concrete proof of that simple fact.

Alongside Thor’s enthusiasm, a look at the time in which this movie was made puts it in a very different light. The U.S. in the late 1980s saw something which many people know as ‘the Satanic Panic’. Basically, Right-wing extremism combined with residual Cold War paranoia, irresponsible shock journalism, and no doubt some other elements as well, to give way too many people the idea that a conspiracy (or more) of literal devil worshippers was working to subvert and destroy our society. As is always the case in these matters, just about every form of youthful nonconformity became a target of zealous moral crusaders.

I was in second grade come 1990, so I only had any personal experience with the tail end of the Panic. My own experiences were moving out to a small town in rural Idaho and discovering that my beloved hobby of Dungeons and Dragons was considered by many to be a form of Satanism. I spent much of my early adolescence looking for that one role-playing game I kept hearing about that would lead me to practicing black magic, devil worship, and deviant sex acts. Not for the first time in my life, or the last, my hopes were raised up only to be cruelly dashed. Now, in my early 30s, I remain an enthusiastic tabletop RPG geek (although contrary to popular stereotype, I do have a place of my own and a social life outside of gaming); but I have long had to accept the fact that, as with so many other important issues, the Right lied to me.

However, the main target for these moral crusaders was probably the music genre of heavy metal. From the very beginning the rock genre, and more blatantly so, its heavy metal offshoot, has been all about rebellion and tweaking those in authority. However, when the moral panic hit way too many people decided that heavy metal was, quite literally, the Devil’s music. The late ‘80s saw community record burnings, rumors about subliminal messages hidden in the albums, and Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest actually getting sued for their music causing fans to commit suicide (I’ve been a Judas Priest fan for roughly a decade, nothing yet). It culminated in Tipper Gore, the wife of former vice-president and president elect, Al Gore, actually holding senate hearings to control this “dangerous” music. Among other things, she’s the reason albums always have those ridiculous parental advisory stickers these days.

Looked at within the framework of its time period, it’s clear that Rock ‘n Roll Nightmare was made with the specific purpose of refuting all these accusations the genre faced. Just look at our heavy metal protagonists: We have a married couple who’s trying to balance their new married life with his job in the band. We have a pair of band-mates who obviously have a thing for each other, but thus far have been too shy to do anything about it. One gets the impression that the manager specifically became a manger because he’s always been a fan and wanted to be involved in the action despite his personal lack of musical talent. Yeah, Stig and Lou Anne are assholes; but they’re the exact kind of asshole you’re going to encounter no matter what social circle you’re a part of. Lack of acting talent gets in the way somewhat, but this is still the impression the movie gets across to us. I know it’s boring compared to the popular fantasies involving drug-fueled orgies with groupies, but it’s probably a lot more realistic. Finally, we are given a front man who’s enthusiasm, despite his limited acting talent, requires no suspension of disbelief whatsoever, for the very simple reason that it’s not acting. Add to this the fact that Satan himself is the villain behind the horrors (that’s not a spoiler), and that the climactic final battle pits him against a heavy metal front man, and you get a clear idea of the argument this movie was trying to make.

So in conclusion, Rock n’ Roll Nightmare is a pretty terrible movie in nearly all particulars, and definitely not for everyone. However, there are some us who really like terrible movies; I wouldn’t have been inspired to write this blog if that wasn’t the case. Finally, Thor’s genuine and clearly visible enthusiasm for the project and that innovatively batshit twist and climax at the end raise this movie from being merely forgettably terrible into something memorably terrible; and even, for some of us, well worth watching.