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Wednesday, 7 November 2012

The Hazing (2004)

Director: Rolfe Kanefsky
Stars: Philip Andrew, Chariame DeGraté, Jeremy Maxwell, Nectar Rose, Parry Shen, Tiffany Shepis, David Tom, Brooke Burke and Brad Dourif
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
The special guests at FearCon V were blaxploitation legend Fred 'The Hammer' Williamson and scream queen Tiffany Shepis, though both are versatile enough for those perennial descriptions to be unfair. I decided to mark the occasion by reviewing a pair of pictures from each of their expansive filmographies and I gave them the opportunity to pick which. The Hammer declined, staying in persona throughout and boasting that everything he's ever done would be worthy of selection (it certainly isn't), but Tiff played along and chose her pair with ease: The Hazing and The Prometheus Project. It's not difficult to see why. The latter is a recent movie directed by her husband, Sean Tretta, while the former came much earlier and is something of an obscure gem, writer/director Rolfe Kanefsky taking a great dollop of familiar and neatly subverting it into a lot more than any viewer reasonably expected. She also gets the best role, one she built nicely on.

Title notwithstanding, it's less The Skulls and more a combination of The Evil Dead and Night of the Demons, tasking a group of pledges with completing a scavenger hunt that ends with them staying Halloween night in a haunted house, which has more than just seniors trying to terrorise them. It also has an evil professor, who they accidentally killed, using an age old book of blood rituals rescued from the ruins of an corrupt ancient monastery to travel between the dimensions of life and death to return from the grave through a rite of possession. Does that sound like it borrows at least a little bit from every horror movie ever made? It often seems like that's exactly what it does, but with deliberate intent, cleverly aiming at a deconstruction of genre conventions in similar ways to Scream or even New Nightmare and becoming a satire, an homage and a fun game of find the reference points. Needless to say, it plays it all for laughs.

The pledge ceremony we see here is a coed one for a change, which provides us with our mixed batch of protagonists. There are only five pledges to Delta Pi and Sigma Xi this year, three guys and two girls, all in ladies' underwear, holding candles and trying to scream. That's no hardship for the girls but the guys look agreeably dorky. Sadistic Jacob and up tight Justine are the seniors whose job it is to manipulate and demean them, so they send them out on Halloween to beg, borrow or steal an eclectic list of items, then survive the night at the Hack House, the location of a gruesome murder/suicide by Jeremiah Hackford sixty years earlier. They do all this in costume too, leading to a great dig at Reservoir Dogs as they slomo strut outside to Little Blue Dog rather than Little Green Bag. Kanefsky is obviously more imaginative than Jacob, who names his test The Test. There are many little touches like this that could be a drinking game for movie nerds.
These characters and their costumes are stereotypes, so it's not hard to figure out where it's all going. Philip Andrew is Doug, the ostensible leader of the bunch, in military fatigues, but Shepis leads the way in her disco spacesuit as Marsha. The delightfully named Nectar Rose is a popular ditzy blonde, skimpily clad as a Playboy bunny. Jeremy Maxwell plays Roy, a lecherous wolfman and that leaves Parry Shen as Tim, the Asian dweeb in a demon suit. And off they go, to acquire stuff like a live rat, a movie theater seat, a signed photo of Bruce Campbell, that sort of thing. Oh, and a unique book named Saviour of the Souls, which Jacob knows is at Prof Kapps's house. We know too, because the film began with Kapps explaining the book's power and history to a nubile and flirtacious young student before bashing her brains in with his staff. He's Brad Dourif playing a wild cross between Donald Sutherland and John Carpenter after a night on the town.

Jacob has this book in The Test because it's Kapps's most valued possession, almost guaranteed to be the one thing that the pledges won't acquire and thus make him feel even more important. However he didn't plan on Doug knowing where it is, Marsha breaking in to catch Kapps with his dead victim in the cellar or Kapps getting accidentally impaled on a cool horn during the ensuing scuffle. Those events pretty much ensure that whatever theatrics Jacob is going to concoct at the Hack House are going to be totally underwhelming to them in comparison, but also that it'll turn out to be just as interesting a time for Jacob as for his pledges. And from there, it doesn't take a genre stalwart to write the rest of the plot. The success of this film is that you may be right for a while, but then you'll go horribly wrong, because Kanefsky isn't interested in playing all those old games the same old way. He wants to stir it up a little and he succeeds.
Trying to explain how he does that will venture into spoiler territory, so I'll resist the urge. I have to highlight at least some of why Tiff picked this one to be reviewed though. She has a peach of a part, one that feels like it was written for her but wasn't. Apparently it's how she met Kanefsky, for whom she's now made six films, this being the third, as he brought her the script when she was in distribution. Marsha is the least easy to read of the five pledges but she quickly subverts Doug's expected leadership, asserts her authority and highlights to him that this time round it's a chick in charge. Shepis doesn't get a revealing outfit, though it's certainly memorable and has its moments, and she does get to scream like a girl on occasion, but she's surely the brightest and the toughest of the bunch and she's both willing and able to punch Doug in the face when he acts like a dick. That's refreshing to see in a film like this.

Shepis has gone from strength to strength, racking up more films a year than is comfortable to imagine, but it's easy to see this as a real boost to her career. It was made after her Troma films, as she was establishing herself as a modern day scream queen, and it firmly shows that she had what it took. She screams well, she looks great naked and she has a charisma that makes it easy to watch her, even when there's more stuff going on than involves her. More importantly, The Hazing demonstrates that she can take it to the next level, performing all the functions expected of a scream queen while remaining both aware of the genre's clichés and unwilling to kowtow to them or the dudes who usually get to take advantage. Marsha isn't a standard 80s scream queen character in the slightest, she's an update for a new generation, more of a scream queen riot grrrl character and that's a good part of what's refreshing about this film.
Shepis is the big winner here, but Nectar Rose acquits herself really well too as Delia, strangely in many of the same ways. Cast in the stereotypically most throwaway role, Delia subverts our expectations just as powerfully as Marsha and Rose impresses just as strongly as Shepis. She's gone on to much more than she'd done prior to this, swapping uncredited roles in blockbusters like Independence Day or LA Confidential and small parts probably landed because of the colour of her hair, such as Not Another Teen Movie or 50 First Dates, for quirkier indie pictures that look like they play off her hidden depths. I'm sure I'll be watching a lot more of her movies, such as Off the Ledge, just because of what she accomplished in this one. She's like Cameron Diaz, only with depth, and she provides a memorable cover to the DVD. I'd be very happy to see her and Shepis team up again in the future, but it hasn't happened yet.

The guys haven't done as well as the girls. Parry Shen is both the most notable and the one I've seen before, impressing in an indie film called Better Luck Tomorrow. He may have landed this part because of Shrieker, which has vague similarities, but after it he moved on to the Hatchet films, as well as to a comedy with Shepis called The Deviants. Jeremy Maxwell became a voice actor. Philip Andrew's biggest role was as a primary cast member in Power Rangers Wild Force two years earlier, but has done little since. Billy Tom, who plays Jacob, was more experienced at this point, with both Pleasantville and a long run on The Young and the Restless to his name, but he hasn't made a feature since, concentrating instead on television. Brad Dourif continues on, of course, as reliable a character actor as we have right now, one of the select few who's always good even when the films they're in are bad. This film is for the girls though, not the guys.

I don't want to suggest that Kanefsky deliberately crafted a feminist slasher movie, it's that he deliberately messed with our expectations for every character, whether male or female. Add in the possession angle, as Prof Kapps tries to escape death by taking over fresh bodies, and quite a few of the cast get to play not only their own character but their own character possessed by an evil professor too. It's obvious that's a blast for the actors, one of whom has fun in a sort of Michael Keaton as Beetlejuice vein. However it's also a blast for us, because we're kept totally on our toes while laughing our asses off in the process. This is slasher movie as body swap comedy. There's also a chainsaw vs electric guitar duel and a sexual assault by a magically elongated tongue. There are inventive and gruesome death scenes, mostly using scavenger hunt props. It's a little gem, half throwback and half next generation, and I want to watch it again.

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