I have far too many unwatched movies on my shelves. Follow me as I attempt to watch all of the ones from the current Year of the Month and figure out what they say about the year in question! Part three delves into some glorious early ’90s trash: Do or Die, Wedlock, Brain Twisters, The Pit & The Pendulum, 976-EVIL II, and The Sect.
I like to think that my physical media backlog is a finely balanced mix of high- and lowbrow, a cultured mix of fine dining and pure popcorn. But when it comes to 1991, it seems high art goes out the window — we are in prime VHS era, even if my collection has mostly moved into the gloriously shiny, disc-based future.
If you imagine my excessive backlog as a ’90s-era, off-brand video rental store then the shelf marked “Action” might contain a grubby copy of Do Or Die, a “girls and guns” movie from the sleazy imagination of Andy Sidaris. During his previous career in sports broadcasting, Sidaris was credited with inventing the “honey shot” — allowing the camera to linger on attractive women in the crowd during lulls in the action — and his movies are exactly what you might expect from a director of that pedigree: messy action punctuated regularly by sex and gratuitous nudity, the very definition of a guilty pleasure. Do or Die throws two of his frequently-naked regulars into a Most Dangerous Game-inspired plot, with dodgy businessman Pat Morita sending a variety of quirky assassins to hunt them for sport. The action largely delivers and the one-liners are appropriately dumb, but the structure is repetitive and Morita launches each attack from a clunky computer interface, which doesn’t offer him much opportunity to interact with the rest of the cast. It falls a little short of the inspired madness of some of Sidaris’ other movies as a result, but he promised the viewer Bullets, Bombs, and Babes, and if nothing else, he delivers on those promises.
Where action bleeds into sci-fi, we might find Wedlock, a high-tech prison-break movie starring Rutger Hauer and Mimi Rogers — together at last! They meet in an experimental prison camp run, improbably, by Stephen Tobolowsky and find that the only way that they can escape is together, thanks to their electronically linked, explosive neck-braces. Aside from Danny Trejo’s “yes, of course” appearance as “Tough Prisoner #1,” this movie very much feels like it was cast by picking random names out of a hat – Tobolowsky’s clearly having a ton of fun playing a sadistic prison warden, but Hauer confusingly seems to be attempting to play against type despite already being the correct type for the role — hiding his natural action chops under ridiculous outfits and hairstyles — and he never quite finds the right spark with Rogers to make the screwball-adjacent, “they hate each other until they fall in love” hijinks really work once they’re out on the run. Each section of the movie delivers fun setpieces and appealingly weird characters but — perhaps as a result of being made for TV — it feels awkwardly segmented, with each act stretching slightly beyond its welcome.
Still, you’d be better off renting that one than Brain Twisters, which the staff of this poorly stocked, imaginary store shuffle listlessly between the sci-fi and horror sections, unable to agree which description is less likely to disappoint. A town is haunted by a wave of random murders from brainwashed locals, but can it be described as a slasher movie if there isn’t a single killer? The killings seem to be linked to a mysterious psychological experiment, but are a bunch of flashing lights enough to call it science fiction? If you really squint your brain, then the leisurely pacing, detached performances and occasional (accidental?) visual flair might be described as “Cronenbergian,” but even that charitable verdict comes unstuck in the middle half-hour. Sluggish pacing gives way to pure padding as the movie throws in torturous scenes like the cop investigating the case tediously, creepily making dinner for the traumatized protagonist. One for the bargain bin, best taped over.
For some more consistent, easily categorized thrills, over to Stuart Gordon. Having already proven his horror chops with a couple of well-liked Lovecraft adaptations, he kicked off the ’90s by having a go at Edgar Allan Poe. The Pit & The Pendulum doesn’t have the same cult following as Re-Animator or From Beyond and that’s probably fair, but Gordon does a good job serving up some grisly gothic chills on a budget. Poe’s source material is mostly just a first-person account of a man being tortured by the Spanish Inquisition, so like Roger Corman before him, Gordon gets creative, adding elements of other Poe stories and era-appropriate folktales to expand the narrative. The cast is the real draw here, with Lance Henriksen wonderfully creepy as the grand inquisitor Torquemada. He works by his own twisted set of rules that makes him hard to predict: he frequently leans into terrible cruelty but at other times his hatred is directed squarely at himself. Gordon regular Jeffrey Combs shines as part of the darkly amusing supporting cast and Oliver Reed turns up for one scene armed with what can only be called a truly disastrous Italian accent (important note: nobody else in the film is even attempting one). It’s a fun ride, although the ending felt a little too neat to me, opting to tie up all the loose ends rather than leaving the viewer with a lingering shudder like Corman’s version.
It may come with less of a pedigree and be the sequel to a movie that already barely exists, but 976 EVIL II was an unexpected highlight for me. The original — directed by Robert Englund! — asks us to buy into a high-concept premise where an automated horoscope telephone line has gotten possessed by the devil. It’s a movie that has interesting Tobe-Hooper-esque vibes and fun characters but stumbles every time it gets too invested in its own dumb premise. The sequel, directed by straight-to-VHS sequel king Jim Wynorski, smartly focuses on a single villain who is already hooked and fully powered up on demonic juice. He’s arrested early in the movie but his hellish powers allow him to continue his killing spree from his cell via astral projection, resulting in a nicely meta twist on the Nightmare on Elm Street formula. This killer can get you when he falls asleep! The movie consistently has fun with his demonic powers, throwing in some unexpectedly gnarly vehicle carnage, plenty of pyrotechnics and — best of all — an inspired sequence in which a character gets sucked into a public-domain mash-up of It’s a Wonderful Life and Night of the Living Dead! It may benefit from low expectations, but Wynorski said his main aim when signing on for undesirable horror sequels was outdoing the first movie, and in this case he fully succeeded.
Finally, a group of teens lurk in the World Cinema section — they’re wary of subtitles but one of them has heard that Italian horror movies are, like, totally crazy, man. And if they can talk the others into watching The Sect (aka The Devil’s Daughter) then this rumor is about to be proven correct in incredible fashion. Michele Soavi’s other horror movies (Cemetery Man, Stage Fright, The Church) might have more robust cult followings, but this one delivers two hours of thrilling insanity, with a Rosemary’s Baby-derived cult plot leading to a string of audacious, barely coherent scenes that are so consistently striking that it’s easy to gloss over the baffling writing and just enjoy the ride. Kelly “Sister of Jamie Lee” Curtis gives Herbert Lom a ride after almost running him down in her car and is soon drawn into a bizarre antichrist plot that delivers weird bug action, murderous corpses, and plenty of gore, but also a scene in which a cute rabbit operates a television remote control. Overlong? Maybe a little, but if there is any padding here, it’s just as spectacularly nuts as everything else.
So, what do these movies tell us about 1991? Mostly that it was a wonderful time for low-budget genre filmmaking. Brain Twisters aside, these niche movies are packed with practical FX, vehicular mayhem and plenty of explosions — even straight-to-video fare like 976-EVIL II. The ’90s are considered a bit of a barren decade for horror, but the goopy, colorful spirit of the previous decade is still fully in evidence at this point, and VHS is clearly going to live forever… right?