The Chronicles of Horror Movie Night: THE DARK POWER (1985)
After starting in Washington D.C. nine years ago, Horror Movie Night has expanded to include chapters in Austin, Dallas, and Chicago. GATW’s own Brian Kelley is the originator and programmer of this illustrious weekly Wednesday night tradition which features a “classic” horror film. Each week I will be reviewing/commenting on the past week’s selection so do your best to find the film, most of which have not made it past VHS, and follow along. Better yet, start your own chapter!
You hear about a lot horror movies starting with some money-hungry white man exploiting the Native Americans and/or building something on top of a sacred burial ground. This, of course, infuriates the inflicted tribe and subsequently a curse is levied upon the offending party. Things never end well. There’s really no problem with using something like this in your horror film, it’s a pretty solid, traditional plot device. Films like POLTERGEIST do something with it that really turns heads, but our Native American film we watched last year at HMN, Fred Olen Ray’s SCALPS, triumphantly failed to impress. So when THE DARK POWER came up this week I was a wee bit trepidatious, but my fears suddenly went away as this short piece of cinematic joy began.
An old Native American medicine man, John “Four Eagles” Cody, dies with a final warning of just one word -“Toltec.” Those present, including a reporter with a cameraman filming the guy on his deathbed, aren’t sure what to think, but soon it becomes clear that the land Cody protected for the majority of his life was cursed by this group of ancient Mexicans and without his care and ritual they would return to claim any lives on the soil. Cody’s good friend and local forrestry law enforcement figurehead Ranger Girard (Lash La Rue) tries to find out the particulars of this curse with the help of the TV reporter and a research student. They better hurry, as a group of college girls have rented the former home of the recently deceased as a sort of off-campus sorority house. Once the four Totlec rise all hell breaks loose.
This film really lets it all go. Not necessarily in the excessive gore department, though there are a couple of good deaths, or the authentic scares, but the laughs come hard, often and a sometimes rather uneasily. The first half of the film almost feels like an '80s sitcom. There are some really bad jokes, bright lighting, and some stilted DIFF’RENT STROKES level acting. Of course it doesn’t help that one of the girls slightly resembles Dana Plato. There are characters like Uncle Earl, the surly handyman who has one apparent job - to spout crazy Southern dialogue and slang like “what in snot burgers is it?” or “if I ever catch you acting like one of them scrotum heads down the hall, then I’ll beat your ass with a Weed Eater.” I should also mention he’s easily a svelte 350 pounds and between a wall and a toilet while reciting that last quote to his nephew who has sneaked away to steal his truck.
You would think that when the Toltecs show up a little over halfway through the film that things would get down to business. Nope. These four hams are like the living dead Indian versions of the Three Stooges, complete with smacking each other in the face - and yes, I realize there are four of them. The quartet are constantly making kooky movements and dancing about. The character with the hatchets does many somewhat kung-fu movements and even throws one of his weapons at a victim only to hit his comrade in the chest. That same unlucky evil Toltec also gets an arrow in the forehead courtesy of the skilled archery of another. This might not be so comical if not set to a rather light-hearted score with tons of sound effects and “whooshing” arrows, but it is.
Speaking of crazy sounds and action...
Mary: “Of course some girls might be a little crazier about whips than others.”
Girard: “You know about my whip?”
Girard: “All about it?”
No, this is not the humble innuendo filled beginnings of a scene from a porno, this is dialogue between “professional” reporter Mary Dalton (who is actually a real life reporter/critic) and the forest ranger Girard. He does have an actual whip. When we first meet this magnificent man the crack of his leather buddy precedes him onscreen as he fights off some wild dogs/wolves/coyotes (I don’t know what the hell they are) who were chasing a young boy. This is no ordinary ranger, he’s this small North Carolinian town’s Indiana Jones. Whips are just his specialty. Curious, I looked up the actor behind Girard and find out that Lash LaRue, besides having an awesome name, was the star of 25 B-Westerns from 1945-1952 - all because of his expert handling of a bullwhip. Damn! I’m not very wise in the ways of westerns but evidently he was a pretty big deal for a while. Hopefully he was a little more active in his younger years, he was in his late sixties during this film’s filming, because he basically stands there and cracks his weapon. That’s something - I guess - but it’s not very exciting, especially when he does it over a hundred times. To be fair, it could be the work of the stale cinematography which manages to suck the life out of most every scene.
Behind all of the laughs, intentional or not, there is another very odd aspect of this film which bring that nervous laughter and seems to have little place in the story. A lot of racism. This town seems to be full of people who cannot stand either Native or African Americans. Much of the racist remarks are made in passing as “jokes” or stereotypical types of statements, like a girl being attacked by one of the Toltecs and yelling at him that she’s “getting ready to go on the warpath and when I’m through with you, you’re gonna be running home on a trail of tears.” Was this a bad attempt at some puns? Possibly, but it comes off, at least in this day and age, as pretty insensitive. This same girl is the lone black cast member, Cynthia Bailey (who is now one of THE REAL HOUSEWIVES OF ATLANTA and a model), and she is the butt of much of the racism, especially the blatant comments. What exactly was writer/director Phil Smoot trying to accomplish with the inclusion of the racist characters? One of the college girls, Lynn, didn’t want to live in a house with her because she’s black. Was this just so we would be a little happier when she finally meets her end? I would bet so, makes it easy to establish the “bad guy” types when they are spewing such intolerant, small-minded remarks. She does go so far as to have her sleazy brother bring some buddies over to be obnoxious and scare her away. It’s all weird.
Back to the humorous! Racist Lynn’s brother, Craig, does a great job of being the nasty kind of college boy your mother warned you about. He is crude and spouts off cheesy pick-up lines (“the gods must’ve worked long and hard to put you together”) and peeks in on a couple of the girls while they are showering and taking a bath. The bathtub gal does get points for drinking beer while bathing. Then she loses them for it being Budweiser. Blech! Luckily one of the bathing beauties wasn’t his sister, so at least he’s not that sick. What is most amusing about Craig is when his two annoying frat guy buddies come over, Dallas and Alan, what do they do - sit around drinking beer, listening to loud music and reading porn magazines. That’s just what us guys always do. Who doesn’t enjoy having a hard-on around all of your male buddies in the living room of a makeshift sorority house? Especially in this position...
If you look beyond the uncomfortable racism in parts of this film there is a good time to be had. The Toltec characters have some pretty cool make-up, even if their sculpted zombie heads almost make them look like characters you would see wandering around a theme park. THE DARK POWER manages to give off a few good kills and plenty of laughs in its quick 77 minute running time. Pick up the DVD over at Amazon, it’s only six bucks. Small price to pay for such a whiptastic film!
Until next time - I’ll be begging my computer for forgiveness for making it look up information on THE REAL HOUSEWIVES OF ATLANTA. Sorry, Mr. Macbook.
Body Count: 11 (counting the Toltecs and one guy whose fate we never completely see)
Best Death: Head smashed and stretched by hand
Number of Blatant Racist Remarks: 8
Number of Times Lash LaRue’s Whip Cracks: 130 - yep, I counted every single one
Coming soon to Horror Movie Night (Chronicles are posted one week after screening):
-7/13/11: RITUALS (1977)
-7/20/11: DEADLINE (1981)
-7/27/11: TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT (1980) - Christmas in July!
-8/3/11: DEATH SPA (1988)
A couple years ago my buddies who run the fantastic and hilarious Horror Remix shows did a shortened version of this and as always the puppet M.C.s, Cheesecake and Thunderclap, had a few comments in the film’s epilogue. Watch and enjoy!