In the late ’80s there was a mini-slasher-subgenre about killers who continue their careers post-execution, including PRISON (1987), THE HORROR SHOW (1989), SHOCKER (1989) and THE FIRST POWER (1990). Before all of those that were not directed by Renny Harlin was DESTROYER starring ex-NFL star Lyle Alzado as insufficiently electric-chaired killer Ivan Moser. He’s pretty much the worst guy to ever meet: a giant muscleman convicted of “the rape and murder of 23 men, women and children” who thinks killing is hilarious and likes to cackle about it.
They put a whole bunch of electricity into that bastard, but a riot causes the power to go out and he gets up out of the chair. Or at least something like that happened if we can believe the opening sequence that turns out to be the nightmare of stuntwoman/Final Girl Susan Malone (Deborah Foreman, VALLEY GIRL, APRIL FOOL’S DAY, WAXWORK), who’s spooked by her screenwriter boyfriend David Harris (Clayton Rohner, JUST ONE OF THE GUYS, APRIL FOOL’S DAY, THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE III)’s research into the Moser case.
One possible sign that it’s a dream is the scene’s weird attention to a Wheel of Fortune rip-off called Wheel and Deal that everybody’s watching in the prison throughout the execution. Moser’s last wish is to have the TV turned so he can keep watching. He seems fixated on the pseudo-Vanna White and later they say that he murdered a game show hostess. I’m confused on the chronology here. But it feels like a vague attempt to satirize America’s obsession with television. Or something.
It’s also sort of taking aim at the movie industry. David and Susan are both working on a b-movie called DEATH HOUSE DOLLS that’s filming on location at the now-closed prison. As much as director Bobby Edwards (Anthony Perkins) tries to keep him in line, Harris (as everybody calls him) rocks the boat by asking too many questions about abuses at the prison that he thinks inspired the riot. For some reason they even interview him on TV about it, so the warden (Pat Mahoney, STRANGELAND) threatens to kick them out.
Harris is a funny character if you think about him as a screenwriter’s self portrait, because he’s super cool: long spiky hair, leather jacket, dreamboat looks, more of a Richard Grieco than a Woody Allen. He’s also some kind of producer on the movie so he’s responsible for delivering a dummy of the star Sharon Fox (Lannie Garrett, KISS AND BE KILLED), which he and many others make inappropriate comments about. I mean it seriously seems like if they don’t lock it away somewhere one of these guys is gonna be caught fucking it. And that would be bad because Sharon takes anything with the dummy very personally. When it’s accidentally melted during a scene she cries “Stop it! She’s dying!”
The other crew member that gets the most play is Rewire, the stoner-dude technician responsible for pyrotechnics and wiring and what not. If you were of a certain age in the ’80s this character is a flashback because you’ll quickly recognize him as Jim Turner, a.k.a. MTV mascot Randee of the Redwoods. He’s a very similar character, minus the headband, and important for delivering exposition about the electric system in the prison and which doors are locked and what not.
Of course, the cast and crew (or at least the ones who have been given names) start being picked off by somebody who turns out to be Moser, still “half alive” and hiding in the prison, protected by his father (Tobias Andersen, HARPER VALLEY P.T.A.), who somehow got away with working at the prison as a janitor.
Although the elaborate camera setups and large scale prison and film set scenes make this feel like a pretty slick studio production, the later stalking portion feels cheaper and cheesier. Alzado walks around shirtless, flexing and laughing and tossing people around as his dad listens nearby, seeming to get off on it. Moser attacks a cop with a jackhammer, first crushing his gun and then hammering into his chest and through the wall behind him. Dad is on the other side of the wall, hunches over giggling and touching the bloody point of the weapon.
It sure looked like Moser fucked up the cop’s uniform, but he ends up wearing it, leather jacket, motorcycle helmet and all. He sneaks up on people in the prison and they must be thinking “Wait a minute – how am I getting pulled over inside here?”
Also he watches through a hole in the set as a women’s prison shower scene is filmed. Kinda interesting that the psycho killer character enjoys the same hobby as the heroes of PORKY’S.
Obviously the electric chair comes into play. More than once. Funny how the fucking thing doesn’t work for its state-sanctioned execution, but does for committing murders of innocent Hollywood types. My favorite weirdo business is when Moser puts Susan in the electric chair and starts cutting her hair as if it’s a real execution. Then he starts eating pieces of her hair. So that’s what we’re dealing with here. A degenerate hair-eater.
Of course they play with it being a movie set. When you see that they’re setting up a fake hanging you know there’s gonna be a real one. My favorite stuff is when it works the other way: when chased by Moser, Susan uses the pyrotechnic setup against him and does at least two things that we saw her do earlier as stunts. For extra credit, she sets up the aforementioned dummy to be flipping off Moser right before the coup de grace.
This being during the Elm Street years, Moser is last seen in a nightmare, returning with his face “burnt up like a weenie,” to quote The Fresh Prince. He says “I brought you a gift, Malone!” and then he pulls off his ear, eats it, and cackles with pride for the great thing he has just done. (I don’t really get the line. It would be a gift if he gave her the ear, but why is it a gift to eat it in front of her?) I guess if this had caught on enough for a sequel he could’ve been the body builder answer to Freddy.
I wonder what this trend of capital punishment horror was all about? It might seem barbaric to my many overseas readers, but the United States still has the death penalty. Many of us lefties are against it, but honestly it’s not a hugely controversial topic. Most people just take it for granted and don’t think about it much except when it pertains to people who we hear might’ve been innocent.
This particular chairsploitation movie deals with abuses in the correctional system, but it’s not like the killer is somebody getting revenge for being falsely convicted. In fact, he brags that he had one more victim than he was accused of. So this doesn’t seem to necessarily be anti-execution. Maybe the lesson is that if they had treated the prisoners more humanely in general then there wouldn’t have been the riot and the execution wouldn’t have been interrupted and nobody would’ve been murdered on this film set. But actually in that case the prison would still be operating and they’d have to film somewhere else. So I don’t know how to parse this one.
But maybe these movies are an acknowledgment, at least subconsciously, that there’s something macabre about official government killing. How can we have an official thing we do in society where a guy has to wear a scary black hood to hide his identity? And this priest is following a ritual/procedure to help the government kill a man. It’s weird. It doesn’t feel right.
Maybe these movies express a fear that the death penalty isn’t gonna save us. Murderers gonna murder anyway. But I can also see an argument that it’s not political at all. It’s just a way of making a killer character scary by showing that there is nothing society can do to save us. Even our most savage action saved for the worst criminals didn’t do shit against this guy. We’re fucked. We’re destroyed.
DESTROYER is not a good horror movie in my opinion, but it’s more fun and novel than most of the shit I watch in this series, so I must give it my approval. Alzado managed to appear in several other movies and an episode of MacGyver, but died four years later from brain cancer he believed was connected to his steroid abuse. First-time director Robert Kirk has spent the rest of his career doing documentaries, mostly for TV, and won a daytime Emmy for writing the year after this came out.
But that’s nothing. Under the title SHADOW OF DEATH, DESTROYER won the Silver Lion award at the Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Film, tied with WAXWORK.