Saturday the 14th (1981) / Comedy-Horror
MPAA rated: PG for some violence and scary images (probably PG-13 today)
Running time: 75 min.
Cast: Richard Benjamin, Paula Prentiss, Kevin Brando, Kari Michaelsen, Jeffrey Tambor, Severn Darden, Nancy Lee Andrews
Director: Howard R. Cohen
Screenplay: Howard R. Cohen
Richard Benjamin (Love at First Bite, Westworld) and Paula Prentiss (Catch-22, The Stepford Wives) play the married couple (the onscreen couple are also married in real life), John and Mary, who end up the (un)lucky inheritors of a supposedly haunted house in rural Erie (read, "eerie') Pennsylvania. They pack up their belongings, as well as their kids, Billy (Brando, The Octagon) and Debbie (Michaelsen, of TV's 'Gimme a Break'), and plan to fix up the large house up to being livable, or at least breathable. Meanwhile, a centuries-old vampire named Waldemar (Tambor, Mr. Mom) and his significant other, Yolanda (Andrews), aim to get into the house in order to find an old book of evil that is thought to give its possessor the power to take over the world. But the book is found by Billy, who unwittingly unleashes all sorts of evil manifestations that begin to terrorize the family. Meanwhile, help is called in, an 'exterminator' named Van Helsing (Darden, Mother Jugs & Speed), who aims to get to the book before it ends up in the hands of Waldemar.
No, this isn't a knockoff of Friday the 13th, or even a slasher film at all. This feeble 1981 spoof of horror films of old is mostly undone by a lack of cohesion in its story as well as some very low production values. Howard R. Cohen, a seasoned screenwriter in the schlocky horror genre (Deathstalker, Barbarian Queen), gets his first crack at directing one of his own features, and the lack of experience unfortunately shows. At only 75 minutes long, it's a strange criticism to declare a film too padded with needless scenes and slapstick antics that run on past their humor value. Much of the film does feel as though it would have made for a decent half-hour comic sitcom than a full-feature motion picture release.
Sometimes the brutality of the violence or its aftermath can make it a bit dark for such light screwball material. One scene sees Mary attacked in the attic by a bunch of bats who begin to tear through clothing and skin, in a scene that is obviously shot to resemble a similar attack on Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock's The Birds. Is it funny that Mary is such a dingbat (no pun intended) that she thinks they are owls that are attacking her? Later on, a severed head is seen as a potential meal in the refrigerator. Or eyeballs come floating up in John's coffee cup. The family seem to behave fairly glib and nonchalant at these extraordinary events, which is perhaps a spoof in itself.
Rated PG, there are a few gruesome moments, though the film appears to play to young kids much of the time, or those who enjoy very old-fashioned comic horror films, such as you might find featuring Abbott and Costello or the Three Stooges, except without the ingenuity or fine comic actors to elevate it. The actors look amused throughout it all, as if much of the humor must have been going on behind the scenes, or they were just silently laughing at how cheesy the film around them seemed to be digressing. The special effects are quite bad, and the monsters look like what they are: men in rubber costumes. And some of them aren't even monsters, looking like space aliens who've stumbled in from other cheesy sci-fi B-movies. In one scene, one of the monsters attacks a curious cop and you can see the zipper on the back of the mask begin to open -- it's that cheap looking. Also just as schlocky are the terrible animation effects (especially of bats who seem to hover before flying) and the awful lighting.
Despite its major flaws from a critical standpoint, the film does enjoy a small 'guilty pleasure' cult following for its infectiously corny absurdity, enough that a sequel was made several years later, Saturday the 14th Strikes Back.
©2012 Vince Leo