Saturday 16 September 2023

Murdercise (Angelica De Alba & Paul Ragsdale 2023) Review

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How's it you kids keep getting yourselves brutally murdered?” Like a throwback to the heyday of the 1980s Scream Queens, Murdercise poses the question – how far should one go to become the cover girl for a cheap and tacky workout video? Is a little bit of killing a step too far, or a fast track to success in Reagan's day-glo lycra-clad America?...

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This is what the audience wants, kid. They don't care about the exercises, I mean, they just want to wank the weasel … pardon my French.” 'Plain Jane' Phoebe (Kansas Bowling, Christmas Bloody Christmas) is an exercise fanatic and self-appointed watchdog for America's growing childhood obesity epidemic, who has high aspirations for the exercise video she's appearing in. Unfortunately for Phoebe, it's funded by the mafia and their man on-set Gino (Bryan Hurd) has no interest in trimming Middle America's expanding waistline, certainly not with mob wife financier Dominica Stromboli (Ginger Lynn, The Devil's Rejects) on-site and pulling strings to have her tearaway daughter Isabella (Nina Lanee Kent, Slashlorette Party) included in the cast of girls appearing in the video.

It's vulgar. We're not making a porn … are we?” Temporarily put in-charge of proceedings, Phoebe is quickly frustrated by the distinct lack of work ethic from her fellow gym bunnies and the video crew, who are far more interested in fast food and goofing over cover girl Candy's latest shot-on-video slasher opus. Struggling to assert her authority, Phoebe snaps and murders Candy (Jessa Flux, Space Babes From Outer Space), but places the blame on a mysterious serial killer stalking the area. Finding herself in the prime slot for the cover girl job, Phoebe discovers she's not quite got it in the bag … so how far will she have to go to secure the gig, and how many of her co-stars are going to survive her ambition?

We're burning videotape here – that stuff ain't cheap!” Crowdfunded and shot on a reported budget of a mere $10,000, Murdercise is a love letter to the quickly-shot exploitation flicks that populated the shelves of video stores in the 1980s. Heading the charge during that era were filmmakers like Fred Olen Ray (Bad Girls From Mars) and David DeCoteau (Dr Alien), who would often crank out their pictures in a handful of days, often shooting on long weekends with 'short ends' of film stock. With their pocket change budgets always in peril of running out, the aim of the game was to shoot fast, nail it in one take, and move on as rapidly as possible with more than 90% of the film shot in one interior location. Big flashy special effects and stunts weren't really within their grasp, but beautiful women comfortable in their birthday suits, quip-filled screenplays, and a goofy premise were areas where they could shine.

Walking in the footsteps of Nightmare Sisters, Virgin High, and Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, Murdercise takes a similar approach. Aside from a handful of shots, practically the entire film takes place inside one windowless office space (no doubt cheap to rent or readily available to the production for free), there's a cast of alluring young ladies, and there's even room for a bit of stunt casting to have some star power dust the proceedings. Witch Academy had Robert Vaughn (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers had Gunnar Hansen (the original Leatherface in 1974's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Evil Toons had David Carradine (Kung-Fu, but now best known for Kill Bill), and Murdercise has Ginger Lynn, one of the biggest adult performers of her era who has gone on to appear in numerous 'straight productions' such as Rob Zombie's particularly sadistic horror flick 31.

But this isn't the same as working at Hotdog On A Stick. All those girls out there are perverts, strippers, and communists.” Without the cash to splurge on splashy blood spillage, Murdercise, much like its ancestors, has to rely on fun characters and sparky dialogue. Not only is it just the right thing to do (mainstream Hollywood seems to have forgotten how to write entertaining characters of late), but it helps fill in the gaps between the somewhat lean array of kills and crimson-tinted carnage. The entire cast are game, which is the only approach that'll work for this kind of material, with one character stealing every scene in which they appear.

Chuck (Drew Marvick, Pool Party Massacre) is the video crew's grip and all-round tech-head, a bearded roadie-like bloke wearing a cut-off belly shirt and Daisy Duke jean shorts with, to complete the ensemble, a fetching bumbag (“fanny pack” to American readers). Gorging on some of the best and most humorous dialogue in the script, Chuck also steals the movie's best visual gag, and features in the funniest scene – one which elicited a genuine guffaw or two from this reviewer. Having flirted with the curvaceous and carnal-minded Candy, Chuck hurriedly sneaks off to a quiet spot for a quickie, but comes to the realisation that his dreams of 'joining the Union' have always been hampered by thinking with his other head. His subsequent moral about-turn – and Candy's evermore frustrated reaction – is gleefully silly and then some, simultaneously fulfilling some of the movie's nudity quotient in the process.

A similarly preposterous and enjoyable scene involves video director Mikey (Luis Maya) facing the ethical, moral, and relentlessly life-threatening scenario of encountering a mob boss' horny wife. No matter what he does he is damned, having to do everything and nothing all at once to save his skin and further his career.

Bogus, dude – that's not cool.” Naturally, with a mere $10,000 to hand, it must be said that the film is not without constraints. The first place where this is made clear is in the production's lighting package – there's not enough illumination to cover most scenes, while seemingly rushed blocking (and little time for re-takes) means that there are multiple instances where actors either step out of their light or into that of their scene partner, plunging them into darkness. Similarly, scene coverage is thin, and the kill scenes lack that additional spark of tension building, with only the final one packing the sort of gory punch you've been waiting for since the offset.

To be fair, though, many of these issues come down to the extraordinarily low budget and what was most surely an extremely pressed production schedule. Considering what the filmmakers have put together for what would probably amount to the daily budget for napkins on your average Marvel movie, Murdercise is no doubt a success and a generally good looking one at that. Also taking into consideration how this film is a decided improvement (in all respects) over the filmmakers' previous outing Slashlorette Party, just imagine what they could have done with $50,000.

Lucky for you I've got a pocket full of change.” There is one main stumbling block for the movie, however, and that relates to the subplot involving the two killer cops who are on-the-loose. We get a brief glimpse of them in a pre-titles sequence, and then only hear about them through a couple of radio broadcasts before they finally show up again as the third act approaches. When they do re-appear, Phoebe's story kind of gets shoved aside, and the goofy, fun tone that has thus far been the norm is awkwardly subverted by the sustained sexual threat perpetrated by the two 'killer cop' characters, who feel as if they've invaded from a grottier and more disturbing exploitation flick. They're far from I Spit On Your Grave territory, but their inclusion nonetheless feels a bit mismatched, forcing the movie to lose focus while their story feels only vaguely connected to the main body of the film. Either it needed to be woven into the fabric of the movie much more, or excised entirely.

Fuck your glasses and fuck me!” In the closing moments there are some references for keen-eyed aficionados of the films that inspired this fairly well made and certainly enjoyable movie. Character surnames include “Gabai” – likely a reference to actor/writer/director Richard Gabai (Dinosaur Island, Assault of the Party Nerds); “Strain” – no doubt a nod towards the late Julie Strain (Fit To Kill, Day of the Warrior); and “Cabot” – surely a wink to Ellen Cabot, one of David DeCoteau's pseudonyms that he used for projects he felt were possibly not his best work, such as Murder Weapon and Deadly Embrace.

That's not Reagan's America.” Budgetary restraints and the odd flaw aside, Murdercise will warm the heart of any fan of the heyday of the 1980s Scream Queens, playing in the same ballpark as 1987's Killer Workout. Too many filmmakers who try to make this 'type' of film these days fail because they're deliberately trying to make a bad movie, which defeats the entire purpose, particularly as so many of the 'so bad they're good' movies were made by people who were trying to do their best within strict boundaries and with meagre resources available to them. It's also important to note that these filmmakers also personally enjoyed these sorts of films, they didn't look down on them, so co-directors Angelica De Alba and Paul Ragsdale (the latter of whom also wrote the screenplay) have both succeeded in approaching this project from the same perspective and in the same spirit as their predecessors.

Exploitation films can be many things and exhibit many flaws, but the one sin they must never perpetrate is to be boring. Considering just how much fun Murdercise is, it's safe to say that it's still on the righteous path towards sleazoid heaven.

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