Monday 31 May 2021

Memorial Valley Massacre (1989)

Director: Robert C. Hughes
Writers: Robert C. Hughes and George Frances Skrow
Stars: John Kerry, Mark Mears, Lesa Lee, John Caso, William Smith and Cameron Mitchell

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

Given that you’re reading about Memorial Valley Massacre in a project about horror movies set on holidays, you might wonder why it isn’t called Memorial Day Massacre and I have exactly the same question. It is absolutely set on Memorial Day, but also in Memorial Valley, because the Memorial Day weekend is when the Memorial Valley Campground opens for the summer and it isn’t ready this year, for reasons that have nothing to do with COVID-19. We have no idea why Memorial Valley is called Memorial Valley but we do know that the movie was originally called Memorial Day because it still is in the end credits. There’s a poster online that still has that title too and the artwork on it is much better than for the film’s reissue titles like Valley of Death or Son of Sleepaway Camp. No, it has nothing to do with the Sleepaway Camp films, but little details like that don’t stop the unscrupulous. There are many other films called Memorial Day, of course, but none that seem to be close enough to this one, in subject or release date, to warrant a change.

My guess is that it changed when the filmmakers noticed that there was an actual Memorial Day Massacre and wanted to distance themselves from it. Reading up on it feels eerily like a contemporary news report but it actually happened in Chicago in 1937, when striking steel workers set off on a march to the Republic Steel Mill, only to be blocked by the Chicago police department. While the strikers were unarmed men and women, the police, “feeling threatened”, promptly opened fire, leaving ten dead. Forty others had bullet wounds and a hundred were beaten with clubs. Nine were permanently disabled and many had serious head injuries. No cop was ever prosecuted, of course, and the coroner’s jury called a verdict of “justifiable homicide”. News footage was suppressed. And, while I fully expect to see horror movies soon that are set during peaceful protests, that’s not what this is. This is clearly an eighties slasher movie as it follows many of the standard conventions, but it also sports an unusual killer and an even more unusual ending.

The beginning isn’t particularly unusual but I like it anyway. We’re treated to a set of pastoral scenes of the American countryside, full of stock footage of the friendly little critters that populate it, to the accompaniment of happy joy joy music. It feels as if we’re going into a Grizzly Adams movie on Lifetime. There’s one ominous note as the title slides onto the screen, reminding us that there’s going to be a massacre in Memorial Valley at some point but, even then, it’s in a traditional western movie font so we immediately think of an attack by Native Americans on settlers invading their land. Only the convoy of RVs driving slowly through the puddles on unpaved country roads tells us that we’re in the present day. Well, that, and the big businessman in a blue suit and a red tie who has huge plans for Memorial Valley—ski resorts, condominiums, the works—and isn’t happy that his campground isn’t ready for its grand opening. So what if a man died in a construction accident and there’s a dead dog tainting the water. No excuses, he says!

He’s Cameron Mitchell, the first big name in the cast, but he promptly drives out of the movie after his one scene, because I’m sure the production couldn’t afford him for more than one day. Maybe he owed someone a favour. Instead, we’re introduced to his son, David, a pleasant young man who had showed up to work at the campground without his dad knowing about it, and his new boss in Memorial Valley, George Webster, who’s a capable fellow who’s starting to go grey, possibly because the actor’s name is John Kerry and he knows full well that every critic is going to crack a joke about that in their review. This John Kerry is an experienced actor still working today and he was already an experienced actor in 1989, with a string of roles as cops and security guards behind him, but what can he do? Mark Mears, on the other hand, who plays David Sangster, never earned another credit. David and George do bristle each other a little, but we know already that they’re going to get along and collectively face whatever’s coming.

And what’s coming is just around the corner because the script springs it on us early. It’s a caveman. Now, he’s not a 7’ 2” caveman like Eegah. He’s just a regular size caveman who keeps himself to himself when not raiding the campground’s stores and appears to hate loud noises. He wears an outfit made of sewn-together animal hides, a bad rock star wig and a set of gnarly false teeth, but he’s a fair enough caveman, able to face his fear and knock out a visiting Doberman that sniffs him out in his hiding place. It does seem a little early to spring the “monster” of the piece on us but we still have no idea who he is, where he’s from or why he’s in Memorial Valley and therein lies the story part of this movie. We don’t know this bit yet, but he’s not even credited as a caveman; if we read IMDb before watching, we’ll see that he’s credited as a “hermit”. Given that he grunts rather than speaks, he does seem to be a very caveman sort of hermit, especially as he does, in fact, live in a bona fide cave. Let’s face it, he’s a caveman.

Before we get to the slasher movie aspects of this slasher movie, we’re introduced to a whole slew of characters. Only one seems to be working the campground with George and David; that’s Deke, a capable handyman who’s black without anyone commenting on it, which is refreshing for an eighties horror movie. He doesn’t even die first! The others are all campers, most of whom misbehave in the ways you’d expect, both with each other and with regards to the sanctity of nature. They chop down trees and carve initials into them, throw litter everywhere and disobey every rule they can find, especially the loud ones. There’s a cute young lady named Cheryl, who wants to be alone, so we know she’ll end up with David. There’s Eddie, a biker as stereotypical as his colleagues aren’t: one is an obviously gay black dude with a plump girlfriend. There’s a trio of youths most interested in who Wendy’s going to sleep with. There’s an obnoxiously normal couple with a spoiled brat of a son. And there’s Gen. John Mintz and his pet blonde, Pepper.

It’s worth mentioning too that, while none of these characters is stunningly well written or stunningly well portrayed by the local actors the production presumably drummed up, they’re a pretty decent backdrop for this picture and pretty decent fodder for our killer caveman. They’re all drawn just well enough for us to have some sort of connection to them, whether a positive or negative one, but never enough to make us care when they become victims. They liven up the campground a little while we wonder about the caveman’s back story and gradually get filled in. You see, as much as he’s obviously a caveman, he’s just as obviously not your thawed out of the ice after a million years sort of caveman. He has traps, but he lets rabbits out of them. He shares his food with a mouse that happens to wander into his cave. And, given what we know about the paleo diet, how the heck does Memorial Valley end up with avegetarian caveman? Especially one that beats up ATVs for making noise rather than the entitled idiots riding them.

Surprisingly, given this intriguing setup, the script lets us in on his secret far too early, so early in fact that he’s only killed a single camper at that point, thus prompting us to shift from trying to figure out the story mode to sitting back to enjoy the deaths mode. We’ve only had one thus far, but nobody but us knows about it yet because it was way out in the woods and the other campers are too busy partying and trying to get out of the sudden rain to notice that that chubby entitled thief kid, Walter, isn’t with them. It’s only when a bear noses its way into a tent and the three kids in there look out to see Walter’s corpse amongst their scattered food that the screams begin and the stage really gets set. Of course, we know that there’s no contest between caveman and campers, as only George and Deke among them have any experience at all with woodsmanship. They were special forces buddies in Vietnam, with the former apparently a very capable tracker. Everyone else is just a death scene waiting to happen.

What ought to seem odd is that, given that we’re spending the Memorial Day weekend in Memorial Valley, with at least three men former members of the U.S. military, nobody ever focuses on the actual meaning of the holiday. It’s not just because William Smith, who, as Gen. Mintz, is the other big name in the movie, isn’t in it for that much longer than Cameron Mitchell. He gets a few scenes here and there, but mostly in isolation and it’s easy to see how they could have been shot together pretty quickly. It’s testament to his charisma that he stamps his presence on this film even though he hardly interacts with anyone else in it, but none of his scenes have anything to do with Memorial Day. Even though he overtly plays a military man here, so much so that it seems strange when George calls him John instead of General, he’s never an obvious tie to the holiday. Maybe we’re supposed to see him as a proxy for all the other members of the military who gave their lives for a better cause than not helping out the other campers.

After all, unlike most of the world, where Armistice Day and its two minute silence at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month became Remembrance Day, a commemoration of those members of the armed forces who gave their lives during service of their country, the U.S. expanded that into a whole network of days, with Memorial Day on the last Monday in May being the closest in function to Remembrance Day. In the U.S., 11th November is Veterans Day, remembering those who served but were fortunate enough to come home to tell us about it, with Armed Services Day on the third Saturday in May honouring those who are currently in service. Add to that five individual days to celebrate the five individual branches of the military, which were intended to be consolidated into Armed Services Day but weren’t, plus another for the National Guard and at least one more specialised one for Vietnam veterans, and the military get quite a chunk of the calendar. Memorial Day and Veterans Day are the most prominent.

And maybe this is another reason why the film was renamed. Why call a movie Memorial Day if it has nothing to do with the actual holiday? Sure, the events here happen over the Memorial Day weekend and, spoiler alert, I believe all three military men die on the the day itself but nobody’s actually celebrating Memorial Day, even those aforementioned military men. Not one person steps up to even thank them for their service, though these campers are hardly the most upstanding members of the community: the entitled and the obnoxious, those who opted out of society and those too focused on one thing to notice it. Really, Memorial Day isn’t a useful title and merely adding the logical Massacre brings us into conflict with the existing Memorial Day Massacre and so hey, why not go with something else. I’d dearly love to know why Memorial Valley is called Memorial Valley, given that nothing has ever been built there until this campground, but maybe it was named by a psychic. After all, it’s certainly a memorial now.

I rather like this movie and without the guilt that often comes with liking crappy eighties slasher movies. It’s not a good film by any stretch of the imagination but it’s not really a bad one either; it gets on with its job quickly and capably enough that it’s hard not to enjoy it. The cast and crew are capable without ever stunning us with their talent. Robert C. Hughes, the writer and director, was a director of television with a couple of cheap movies behind him, but he does a smooth enough job here to make me surprised that he only made one more feature before going back to TV and shows like Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Maybe he was just too late to capitalise on the straight to video market that he would seem to be highly qualified for. His co-writer, George Frances Skrow, only has one other credit, from the same year, and that isn’t uncommon for the people who worked on this film. Mark Mears didn’t find a steady if undistinguished career in B movies and neither did Lesa Lee, who plays Cheryl. Both should have done more.

The most interesting actor in the film never acted again either and that’s John Caso, who plays the “hermit” caveman and has quite a presence, even without the benefit of a single line of dialogue, though part of that is surely the fact that he’s the uniqueness here. Without him, IMDb’s description of “Campers on a holiday are terrorized by an axe-wielding maniac” would be accurate and just as routine as that sounds. He’s clearly in great shape, without being a muscleman, and we watch him flip off tree branches or through windows as if he was a natural parkour athlete. He feels like he belongs out there in the woods and I can’t say that I have any issues with the way the script treats him, as unusual as that ends up being. The only problem with his performance is one that we simply can’t blame him for, namely the way that his puzzled looks at the people entering his domain are reminiscent of a constipated Ben Stiller, who was about as big a star at the time. I wonder what cinema would be like had Caso have had Stiller’s career.

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