Night Screams / Phantom of the Ritz

Earlier in this year’s too brief Slasher Search, I reviewed OPEN HOUSE, and I wrote about the interesting career of its director, Jag Mundhra. And I saw that he directed HACK-O-LANTERN, which I had considered watching for many years, but I felt like it no longer qualified for Slasher Search, because it has a fancy remastered Blu-Ray release with extras and everything. And then Joe Bob Briggs played it on Shudder, so it became more notable, but was clearly not something that required searching.

Never fear. I’ve managed to find a substitute double feature, another director who did two obscure late ’80s horror movies. The first is on DVD (but an old and crappy one), the second only on VHS.

The director’s name is Allen Plone, and his first film was NIGHT SCREAMS (1987). It’s fairly serious and straight forward, very often laughable, but strange and vaguely competent enough to be entertaining. And filmed and set in Wichita, Kansas, giving it its own regional flavor. Pretty much the kind of thing I’m looking for here.

Like many in the genre, it starts with a fakeout: a scary woman-in-her-under-being-spied on scene that turns out to be a horror movie that some characters are watching, but they themselves seem to be being spied on. I thought the movie-within-a-movie was surprisingly well executed – there’s a good fencing related kill – because I didn’t realize it was a real movie, GRADUATION DAY. Which I guess I haven’t seen? I thought I had, but I don’t remember seeing Vanna White in a movie before.

Anyway, the grown couple watching GRADUATION DAY while also trying to grill burgers outside late at night get stabbed to death by an unseen person, and there’s a good cut from a kill in the living room to a kill on the screen. They react as if it’s someone who makes sense to be there, and then small bloody fingers incorrectly play “Chopsticks” on the piano, so we figure it’s their kid and note that they make a point of not specifying the name or gender of the character who, years later, is released from the sanitarium to become our killer.

Seems like a pretty straightforward HALLOWEEN type scenario, with a premature release rather than an escape. But wait, there’s more: two cops pull up to Jake’s Cafe, and Jake comes out to greet them and they warn him that two convicts have escaped from Leavenworth and might be headed this way. He tells them he’ll close up early to be safe and everything seems on the up and up until the officer moves toward the building and OH SHIT the convicts were already inside, and come out shooting! The younger cop in the car tries to shoot back and one yells, “Nice shot, fuckface!” before hitting the car, causing it to explode, and explode a nearby gas pump, and set the officer on fire. Its a hell of an exclamation point to start a b-movie on, and a cool storytelling gimmick later mirrored in FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (though I’m sure there’s some more famous version of it Tarantino could’ve been inspired by).

One continuity note: the cop says there are two escaped convicts, but inside there are three, but one of them immediately gets killed and thrown through a window, so the cop becomes retroactively correct.

The main characters are, I believe, supposed to be in high school, since star running back Dave (Joseph Paul Manno, A HOUSE OF SECRETS AND LIES starring Connie Sellecca) getting a four year scholarship to Oklahoma. It would be charitable to see they all look like they’re in their late twenties. There’s one guy that’s supposed to be the preppie, so he wears a suit and tie, and I kept thinking he was their teacher or something.

Dave has a party to celebrate, and we meet all the football players and cheerleaders who will be there while they hang out in their male and female locker rooms talking about the opposite sex, dicks, etc. Dave’s parents remind him to take his pills, he seems to experience confusion and dizziness, he feels tormented by the pressure of being the star football player, and at one point pounds his fists on a public restroom sink in despair about it.

I was leaning toward “they want us to think he’s the one who was in the sanitarium” rather than “he’s the one who was in the sanitarium” but it’s the kind of movie where maybe they really could think they were being subtle with the pill thing and we wouldn’t pick up on it.

Dave is a big muscley dude with a Matt LeBlanc type very-sincere-dumb-guy quality that’s kind of likable. He and his best friend D.B. (Ron Thomas, who played Bobby in THE KARATE KID I and II and an episode of Cobra Kai) have a thing that they always high five each other, and when he does it kind of half-heartedly D.B. seems genuinely disappointed and says, “Come on man, what was that, a high three?” D.B. is also fond of “that’s what she said last night” jokes.

There’s some pretty great synth music, especially the opening credits theme that I thought sounded more like a breakdancing movie than a horror one. Sure enough, composer Michael Linn had already done BREAKIN’ 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO and RAPPIN’ (plus AMERICAN NINJA).

But arguably the best thing about the credits is this card:

I was kind of hoping these Sweetheart Dancers were the ones playing the cheerleaders, kind of like how the Flying Karamazov Brothers played that tribe in JEWEL OF THE NILE, but they’re just a troupe that we see dancing in a club that the kids go to before the house party. They’re introduced as “the nationally famous Sweetheart Dancers” and do a routine (which includes some moves from the “Beat It” video) accompanied by a band called The Dogs who have two keytar players and seem like they’re trying to sound like The Revolution.

Dave is seeing a girl named Joni (“introducing Megan Wyss,” who had been on several TV shows, and has no credits after this) who the other girls are mean to because she just moved there and they’re jealous that Dave likes her. When asked where she moved from all she says is “a really nice place” which prompts one girl to say, “‘A really nice place?’ God, what a dickhead!” and tells us, the viewers, that there’s a mystery as to whether Dave or Joni is the kid who killed the GRADUATION DAY fans and got out of the hospital. Or maybe we’re not supposed to pick up on that.

I thought I recognized Janette Caldwell, who plays Lisa – if I did, it must’ve been from STRIKING DISTANCE. She’s about the only likable one, while the rest are all trying to cheat on their boyfriends or girlfriends or making terrible Yoda or “we don’t need no stinkin’ badges” references. One guy seems to be addicted to porn – he can’t stop watching some John Holmes/Seka/Honey Wilder movie even while his girlfriend is trying to make out with him. When they do have a love scene it keeps cutting to clips from the porno, including long, repeated closeups of boobs being washed in the shower. Way to extend the running time there.

He tells his friends he brought a tape called WENDY WOWS WICHITA, which I took to be a joke movie that really exists within the reality of NIGHT SCREAMS, but maybe it was him making a joke.

There’s another character named Russell who’s the “funny” guy, has a “funny” dance scene, wears a wacky fedora, and is assumed to be pulling a hilarious prank when he’s laying there dead. D.B. tries to wake him by waving a sandwich in front of his nose, on account of he is slightly chubby I guess.

This cover is great.

The IMDb plot summary for this one says, “A football star throws a party for his friends. Two insane killers escape from a nearby asylum on that same night, and in their efforts to elude authorities, wind up at the party.” That’s pretty accurate, but the surprising thing is that the convicts basically hide out for the whole movie, unknown to the partiers. I appreciate the weirdness of the scene where the ringleader Snake looks in a mirror and does a pretentious monologue about creation and destruction. I thought at first that he was quoting something, but then he seems to just be trying to express himself.

Anyway, he eventually reveals himself and gets in a fight with Dave, but unless maybe we were supposed to ignore the clues about Dave and Joni and believe Snake was the one sneaking around killing people, the whole escaped convicts storyline is pretty much irrelevant.

But of course I kind of dig that.

The kills are not as spectacular as the cafe shootout, but they’re okay. Maybe the best is a face being pushed onto a burner on top of a hamburger patty. Or the swimming pool axing.

One weird stylistic choice is that the end credits are interspersed with highlights from throughout the movie. Not just kills, but dialogue exchanges and the cafe shootout and stuff. Maybe it’s another trick to push the running time to 88 minutes, but it gives me the impression that despite the many laughable flaws of the movie it is something that Plone cares about and putting some elbow grease into. He could’ve just had really slow rolling credits. By the way, the editor is Herbert L. Strock, who directed the b-movies GOG, I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN, BLOOD OF DRACULA, HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER and THE CRAWLING HAND, as well as BROTHER ON THE RUN, a 1973 movie I know because of its Johnny Pate soundtrack.

The screenplay is credited to Mitch Brian (TRANSFORMATIONS, THE ’70S) and Dillis L. Hart II (no other credits). Though I wasn’t aware of Brian, I’d say he ranks high among the most subsequently respectable Slasher Search alumni; he’s credited as a developer of Batman: The Animated Series, having co-written the series bible and writing the debut episode “On Leather Wings,” plus “POV” and “Bane.” He has an in-depth Wikipedia page, so I know that he’s one of those screenwriters who sells lots of screenplays that end up not getting made, including ones about John Brown, the Philippine-American War, Custer, Jefferson & Adams, and remakes of FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD and SEVEN DAYS IN MAY. He and Robert Schwentke (R.I.P.D.) did a rewrite of LAST VOYAGE OF DEMETER, that Dracula script that’s been in development for going on two decades, originally I think with Alex Proyas directing, currently THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE’s André Øvredal. And he seems to still dig horror – plays he’s written include Maul of the Dead, Sorority House of the Dead, Dracula: A Song of Love and Death and an adaptation of Roger Corman’s BUCKET OF BLOOD.

I really like this cover art too. Mainly for the dripping.

I actually watched Plone’s second movie PHANTOM OF THE RITZ (1988) first. It leans a little more on comedy than on horror, and I did not find much of the comedy funny, but luckily it’s unusual enough it made me curious about this director and want to check out the earlier one.

This one is written by Tom Dempsey (AMATEUR NIGHT, TRENCHCOAT IN PARADISE, THE LAST SPRING). IMDb also gives credit to Gaston Leroux, which is stretching it, but yes, this is about a burnt up guy who hides out in a theater like a “phantom” and sometimes gets worked up and does some murders and what not. That’s probly closer to early Slasher Search find THE MEAT EATER than Phantom of the Opera.

The movie starts with narration by this Phantom (Joshua Sussman, BRENDA STARR) as he talks about an AMERICAN GRAFFITI-homaging 1955 incident when his brother (accompanied by some sax rock) crashed his yellow hot rod in a drag race. His brother died and he caught on fire and the back of the box says he’s a ghost (which makes this similar to THE HEAVENLY KID) but my understanding was that he was disfigured. He goes to hang out in what becomes a porno theater called The Pussycat Theater, I believe.

Decades later the theater is called The Ritz and has been closed for years and a dreamer named Ed (Peter Bergman, writer of ZACHARIAH and CRACKING UP) decides to buy it, repair it and use it as a music venue. It really sidetracks and becomes a comedy about the different personalities involved. I honestly forgot it was a horror movie for a while, and that’s not a complaint.

The best character is Marcus (Russell Curry, “Bouncer,” QUEEN’S LOGIC, “Black Gangster,” MOBSTERS, “Second Officer’s Partner,” FALLING DOWN, “Guerilla 1,” FUTURE WORLD), a guy who just walks up to Ed and convinces him to hire him for head of security, a position he was not looking to fill. Marcus is a muscle dude who wears tank tops, enunciates with great clarity and seems to make a game of saying everything with seven times more words and syllables than necessary. He later confesses to Ed that it’s because he wants people to know he’s “more than a great body. He says he can bench 410 and knows 30 English words beginning with ‘x.’

Another funny character is Sally (Cindy Vincino), the grouchy, chainsmoking and pretty lovable accountant, who on her first day says, “The place is a dump. It’s where a dump goes to dump.” But if there’s a heart of the movie it’s Ed’s girlfriend Nancy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh, THE WARRIORS, STREETS OF FIRE, MEAN GUNS, FIRESTARTER 2: REKINDLED, THE DEVIL’S REJECTS), who’s in charge of repainting the place, and everybody absolutely hates her color choices. She has a quirky, cool sense of fashion and it is my duty to chronicle any Popeye themed clothing in movies, so check out this skirt:

I like that the main character in this is not remotely like Hollywood’s idea of a leading man. He’s supposed to be kind of cool because of his passion, and he has a hip girlfriend, but he’s just a normal dude with Gene Siskel hair. I suppose it makes a little more sense now that I know Bergman was the founder of the Firesign Theater, which was probly meaningful to Plone, but without that context it seems kind of cute how much everybody accepts this dork. And Nancy seems way out of his league, but he neglects her. I think it’s a joke that we hear her singing a beautiful song to herself while putting up flyers, but he never thinks of her when he’s auditioning a bunch of weirdos to perform at the Ritz. There’s a very long and pleased with itself version of one of those montages of different ridiculous auditions and Ed and Marcus saying “Thank you, next!” I did laugh at the first guy, who plays like five notes of “Johnny Be Good” but pulls a muscle doing the duck walk.

Eventually it does get back to the Phantom. Sometimes he wears a cape and a Nixon mask. I can’t explain it but I thought it was genuinely, intentionally funny when he reached over the bathroom stall and grabbed Sally by the hair and instead of screaming she yelled, “Oh, shit!” Thankfully he just ties her up in the belfry or whatever. In the climax when he brings Nancy there I genuinely liked the scene because I didn’t expect him to be as eloquent as he is. His motive is kind of cool – he complains that Ed is obsessed with the ‘50s, a time that was terrible for him. And when she screams “Don’t touch me!” he seems hurt, saying, “I’’m not contagious.” But this doesn’t make him too sympathetic – he’s also really condescending, calling her “sugar” and “honey.”

It’s a weird mix of genres and tones, and I wouldn’t say it entirely works, but I’d rather have something this original that doesn’t work than something boringly generic. Like with NIGHT SCREAMS, it seems like Plone makes up for some of the movie’s lacking with his enthusiasm. It’s obvious that he’s into music, and has graduated from The Dogs and the Sweetheart Dancers to having the actual Coasters (or whatever lineup of them existed in 1987, anyway) as the first big act to play The Ritz. There’s also some movie jokes at the beginning when Ed is going through Nancy’s VHS collection. First of all, she has a copy of NIGHT SCREAMS, which he scoffs at. He also notes a tape called KLAUS KINSKI’S BLOOPERS AND BLEEPS and a version of OTHELLO starring Mr. T and Pia Zadora, with Chuck Norris as Iago. These are corny ass jokes, but they’re jokes that you put in there not to cynically appeal to some exploitation audience, but because you’re trying to show off that you’re into that stuff.

Here’s some good news: The Ritz – which is in Tampa, Florida – still exists, is still called The Ritz, is still a music venue. You can take a virtual tour. (The bad news is that it’s Florida, so they think public health is for pussies, and have sold out shows for this Halloween weekend.)

I think this will be my last pre-Halloween-2020 Slasher Search review, and I didn’t find a real gem this year, but I’m very happy with this find of a mini-slasher-auteur here, a guy who made two slasher-related pictures that are, if not good, at least watchable and full of personality. His only other narrative feature directing credit is SWEET JUSTICE (1992), an action movie I’m gonna have to track down – it stars Finn Carter as “Sunny Justice” and co-stars Frank Gorshin, Marc Singer, Kathleen Kinmont, Patricia Tallman and Mickey Rooney! Other than that, he did HOLLYWOOD’S HOTTEST STUNTS (1990) and three Earth Wind & Fire projects: concert films in 1994 and 2000 and a bizarre, mystical PC game in ’94.

So he’s one of these guys I come across often in this series, who made a horror movie or two in the ‘80s and since then has dabbled in various creative or industry stuff that’s harder to trace. I found a posting where he says he taught writing and film at UC Santa Cruz, and mentions directing commercials and industrial films before his movies. He says “My directing, now, is primarily on children’s shows,” and there’s a link to something called Danni’s Tales, which is his last credit on IMDb. It has very little information, but I think this photo gives us an idea:

This concludes Attack of the Plones, or, I Have a Plone to Pick: An Allen Plone Retrospective. You are now exiting the Plone Zone. Safe travels.

This entry was posted on Thursday, October 29th, 2020 at 11:14 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

4 Responses to “Night Screams / Phantom of the Ritz”

  1. Digging that NIGHT SCREAMS opening theme! Sounds like Fletch is gonna be on the case or something. Very Harold F. Ha, ha. Gonna haveta seek this one out.

  2. That main theme “slaps”!

    (Am I…am I doing that right?)

    Thank you for finding this stuff Vern! I agree that weird stuff with good personality that reies and doesn’t necessarily succeed is far more interesting than mediocre films that go through motions and fade away five minutes after they end.

    And I would love to see Othello with Mr. T and Chuck Norris.

    (That reminds me, the “Phantom of the…” plot was used for that Chuck Norris Hero and the Terror. I may need to watch that one again.)

  3. I was like “Hey, I should finally get around to watching NIGHT SCREAMS, which I always get confused with DEATH SCREAMS, which I also haven’t watched” but then it started sounding familiar around the grilling-burgers-while-watching-a-movie scene and then the random dance number but what really brought it home was the two criminals hiding out in the basement for half the movie. It really is possible to watch too many slasher movies, you guys. Now I have to wonder if I’ve actually seen DEATH SCREAMS too.

  4. A hero with Gene Siskel hair sounds boring, but if it’s Gene Shalit hair then we might have a movie here.

    I stumbled across this link in case it proves useful for any future Slasher Searches:

    Every Horror Film Made from 1895 - present

    A list that is trying to contain every horror film made that is not lost and is found on the letterboxd database. If there is any missing OR any mistakes within the list: please let me know via the comment section and I will correct them List will be constantly updated

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