31 Days to Scare ~ Funeral Home (Cries in the Night)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A young woman arrives at her grandmother’s house, which used to be a funeral home, to help her turn the place into a bed-and-breakfast inn. After they open, however, guests begin disappearing or turning up dead.

Stars: Kay Hawtrey, Lesleh Donaldson, Barry Morse, Dean Garbett, Harvey Atkin, Peggy Mahon, Alf Humphreys

Director: Willaim Fruet

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  By this point, there aren’t that many American horror films from the late ‘70s and ‘80s that I haven’t had a chance to get a look at.  There are many are titles/box covers I remember seeing as a child but, being too young to rent them myself, I always wound up going home with Horror of Dracula, Jaws, or another less intense film that didn’t feature copious amounts of gore and nudity.  As I got older, many of these titles I mentally put on my list were lost due to the onslaught of DVDs and the ushering out of VHS tapes – so rediscovering these long-lost or hard-to-find flicks is kind of fun.  Honestly, when I finally do see them I’m often disappointed because nothing can really live up to what your childhood brain conjures based on the box art but then there are those that are nice surprises.

Made in Canada in 1979 and released there in 1980 as Cries in the Night, this early slasher film arrived on the scene just a few short months after Friday the 13th premiered and ignited a new wave slice and dice features.  Eventually renamed Funeral Home and making its way to US theaters in 1982 when the genre was in full swing, the movie often gets unfairly relegated as just another retread of movies that were made after it but released before.  Yet during its original release it proved popular and even became a long-running cult classic in Mexico.  Viewed now, it may seem a bit tame but taken in context of when it was first in theaters it’s a fairly solid example of when these kinds of movies weren’t classified as cinematic leftovers.

Arriving for a summer stay with her grandmother, Heather (Lesleh Donaldson, Happy Birthday to Me) is mostly there to help Maude (Kay Hawtrey) get a new bed and breakfast up and running.   After her grandfather up and left her grandmother, times have been tough and she’s immersed herself in making silk flowers to sell in town.  Now Maude has decided to turn her residence into a place for people can come to rest with peace. Turning the former family funeral home into a place of rest and relaxation isn’t as easy as one would think, what with suspicious disappearances taking place.  Without any bodies, there isn’t much the town sheriff (Alf Humphreys, My Bloody Valentine) can do so it’s up to Heather and her new friend Rick (Dean Garbett) to dig deeper into a mystery surrounding her family property.  They’ll have to work quick, though, because a killer is on the loose and might come looking for them next.

Director William Fruet had a nice little career with these small budgeted Canadian horror films.  This is one of his more well-known efforts and with good reason. It’s nicely made and the Hitchcock influences are felt throughout.  Screenwriter Ida Nelson also takes(okay, steals) a few bits from the Master of Suspense but the homage is welcome.  The performances are good and Donaldson makes for an appealing leading lady as does Hawtrey as her dotty grandparent who may know more about the disappearance of her husband than she’s letting on.  Though not exactly scary, mostly because the copy I saw was of such bad quality, it was hard to decipher at times, the movie does have a good sense of timing and more than its share of creepy sequences when Heather is slinking around in places she shouldn’t.

With a focus on atmosphere instead of the blood, guts, and flesh that would become the norm, it’s more akin to a famous classic horror/suspense film from the 60’s than anything it was released alongside.  I’m not going to mention what movie that is because it would give away a large twist Fruet and Nelson save for the final moments of the film.  Unfortunately, the ending doesn’t live up to what came before.  Still, I wish more people gave Funeral Home its due. Even now, it’s a rare title that hasn’t been picked up for a special edition remastering on BluRay.  Without a physical copy to locate, I watched it as a low quality version for free on Amazon Prime.  Would the movie get the full bells and whistles treatment it deserves, I’d happily take another look at it – and hopefully catch bits I missed the first time.  Give this one a try.

31 Days to Scare ~ Happy Birthday to Me (1981)

happy_birthday_to_me_poster_01

The Facts:

Synopsis: At the snobby Crawford Academy, popular high school senior Virginia Wainwright survives a freak accident, but suffers from memory loss and traumatic blackouts. As she attempts to resume a normal life, something terrible is happening – her friends are ruthlessly murdered one-by-one.

Stars: Melissa Sue Anderson, Glenn Ford, Lawrence Dane, Jack Blum, Matt Craven, Lisa Langlois, Tracy Bregman, Lenore Zahn, Lesleh Donaldson

Director: J. Lee Thompson

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: By the time Happy Birthday to Me rolled into theaters in May of 1981, movie houses were becoming saturated with holiday themed slasher pics after the booming success of Halloween in 1978 and Friday the 13th in 1980.  No government holiday stone was left unturned and no religious day of remembrance was safe from having a killer (or killers) hunting down people that just want to have a good Easter egg roll or plant in tree in honor of Arbor Day.  See Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine, and Terror Train if you need a refresher.

What sets Happy Birthday to Me apart from the others is that it actually feels like it’s trying for the majority of its running length, aiming to provide audiences with some unique kills and a fair number of red herrings to keep you guessing until the totally ludicrous finale.  Underneath the gore and out of left field plot twists lies a fairly interesting film that isn’t totally lost along the way to its genre’s normal trappings.

A puzzling late career entry for director J. Lee Thompson (the original Cape Fear, The Guns of the Navarone) and one of actor Glenn Ford’s last roles, this nicely budgeted Canadian produced flick has Mary Ingalls herself (Melissa Sue Anderson) as a popular girl who just can’t keep her friends alive.  Still feeling the lingering effects of a traumatic brain injury due to a car crash that claimed the life of her mother, she starts to suffer blackouts and when she wakes up finds that another coed has been murdered.  With her birthday approaching the guest list gets liberally trimmed by a killer that likes to off their victims in a most cinematic fashion (I mean, just look at the poster!).

It’s clear that along the way the original script was jiggered with and lost some of its intended focus.  Though it feels like it’s headed one way for its big reveal, the ending provided is one no one would ever be able to predict in a million years.  I’m guessing there was a last minute reshoot to make the conclusion less obvious but in doing so it renders a heap of earlier clues and plot points useless.  It’s a cheat and a big cheat at that, but it’s just looney tunes enough to make it memorable.

Anderson never was that strong of an actress and it shows here as well.  Whether crying, screaming, or saying her lines in a flat monotone, a Scream Queen she was not destined to be.  Ford collects his paycheck without much shame while a bunch of Canadian teens never make that much of an impression, save for Matt Craven (Indian Summer) and Tracy Bregman as Anderson’s doomed chums.

It’s a film that goes from spooky to silly to scary to stupid but it’s not a bad party to think about attending – trust me, you’ve been to way worse real birthdays.  And don’t forget the creepy theme song that plays over the end credits…