You know I love the slasher movies, but I admit that part of their magic is that most of them are transmissions from a bygone era. The ineffable chemistry of eager Hollywood outsiders trying to jump onto a specific bandwagon, either with great passion or comically overconfident cynicism, sometimes in some obscure neck of the woods we’ve never seen in a movie before, often with the freshness/awkwardness of beginners who don’t necessarily know the cinematic rules they’re breaking, is frozen in time on beautiful (or beautifully ugly) 35mm (or even 16mm) film. Most of that can’t be re-created in a computer lab. Usually when they try it looks too clean, also too cheap, they try to avoid needing many makeup FX, they’re too self conscious, or too gloomy, or too fucking boring. I’m generally suspicious of the new shit. This is all to explain why it took me eleven years to get around to LAID TO REST. In my defense it was released in 2009, the twilight of the nu metal era, with a metal skull on the cover. It was easy to make assumptions.
During the opening credits I was ready to write it off. It has the ingredients of a cool NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET style montage of the film’s wannabe-slasher-icon ChromeSkull (Nick Principe, “Slick,” AGENT CODY BARKS) preparing his implements (a shiny skull mask, a bunch of surgical tools, a camcorder), but it’s annoyingly smothered in corny fake glitches, Avid farts and shaky video of screaming and torture and shit. It lists the bands that are gonna be featured on the soundtrack before a naked lady gets graphically cut open.
Okay, there’s definitely some fucked-up-shit-for-the-sake-of-fucked-up-shit in here, but it gets more captivating as soon as our protagonist, who is credited as “The Girl” but later nicknamed “Princess” (Bobbi Sue Luther, THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES) wakes up locked in a coffin in a funeral home and manages to shake it enough to make it tip over and launch her out. She doesn’t know how she got there or even who she is – in fact, she’s so out of it that if it didn’t say “Emergency – 911” on the phone I don’t think she’d have known how to call the police.
We as a society of movie watchers have agreed to accept that tracing phone calls is a process that takes time and you have to stay on the line for (in this case) 30 seconds. That’s complete bullshit, but it makes for more drama than the reality. LAID TO REST adds an additional nonsensical technology rule that if you step too far away and accidentally unplug the receiver on second 29 then that counts as hanging up. Oh well. I got over it when it was immediately followed by the absurd humor of our unnamed amnesiac seeing the man in the skull mask and asking, “Are you from the police?” (Later she’ll say, referring to the 911 operator, “I want to go to the police lady’s house now.”)
Richard Lynch (INVASION U.S.A.) plays the mortician who tries to calm her and unlock a door for her and doesn’t pay attention to her warnings and gets splattered all over the window. One of his greatest roles.
When she escapes, a guy named Tucker (Kevin Gage, STEELE JUSTICE, HEAT, G.I. JANE, PAPARAZZI) drives by in his pickup, notices her bare feet, and picks her up. I always like Gage, even in CHAOS, so I was relieved that (Spoiler? Unspoiler?) he becomes one of the protagonists, because I thought for a bit that his bald head meant he was ChromeSkull playing games with her. There’s some drama when he brings her home to his wife Cindy (Lena Headey, 300, DREDD, PRIDE + PREJUDICE + ZOMBIES), but she too turns out to be nice.
SPOILERS THIS PARAGRAPH: When I saw Headey and Jonathan Schaech’s names on the opening credits I thought, “Oh, this is a bigger movie than I thought it was.” It’s kind of a fake out though because Cindy doesn’t last that much longer than the mortician, and Schaech (ROAD HOUSE 2: LAST CALL)’s character Johnny dies instantly. I can’t even say it’s like DEEP BLUE SEA because he’s just in one scene, but it’s a great example of the movie’s “so fuckin horrible you can only laugh” style of black humor. He’s Cindy’s brother who thinks Tucker is cheating on Cindy because he saw him drive by with Princess in the truck, so he goes to warn his sister, who he doesn’t know has already been horribly murdered. Right after he gets there ChromeSkull’s huge, fancy knife stabs through both of his cheeks, then slices the top off like a giant hunk of ham. And later Tucker, not knowing about any of this, will risk everything to go back to the house because Johnny was supposed to come by in the morning and he feels a duty to spare him discovering Cindy’s mutilated body.
I’m kinda old so 2009 doesn’t seem like that long ago, and it’s a shock to see how ancient the tech here already looks. One of ChromeSkull’s things is that he records all his murders, so he has a camcorder attached to his shoulder. Like, handheld-sized, but big enough to look ridiculous attached to his shoulder, and he has to go through a bunch of trouble to change, label and organize his tapes (which he sends to the police for fun). Also he has a cell phone, and speaks through text, but this is pre-smart phone and not everybody has phones on them. Tucker’s land line was shut off because they couldn’t pay the bills, and a random person whose door they knock on, Steven (Sean Whalen, THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS, TAMMY AND THE T-REX, WATERWORLD) doesn’t “have a traditional landline per se” because he’s a computer nerd, I guess? He tries to contact the police through their website, which doesn’t go well.
Writer/director Robert Hall told Fangoria at the time, “I wanted all the technology that ChromeSkull has to be so realistic, you could pick it up at Best Buy.” I like the strange dorkiness of this killer, trying to look super-slick on a modest budget, especially since this was made in the distressed t-shirt era of slashers, when ‘70s classics had to be remade with the killers bigger and more muscular and with more grime and battle damage on their masks. This guy’s got a clean black suit and a black car with his nickname on the vanity plates! That, combined with with the funeral home, the chrome tools and the way we watch his bizarre doings without explanation brings to mind just a taste of PHANTASM. But his metal visage and cyborg-like relentlessness seem a little TERMINATOR, subliminally bolstered by the presence of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles stars Headey and Thomas Dekker.
That casting is explained by Hall’s background as a makeup artist and founder of the FX companies Almost Human and later PostHuman, doing FX for Sarah Connor and apparently befriending much of the cast. Hall told Fangoria that since his company produced LAID TO REST they were able to work on preproduction well in advance, whenever they had free time between jobs, which accounts for the extremely high quality gore. Makeup effects supervisor Erik Porn (NO ONE LIVES, THE WRETCHED) and visual effects supervisor Marc Varisco (MINORITY REPORT, RISE OF SKYWALKER) create some spectacularly gruesome images of shiny knives cutting through heads, skin stretching out, necks splitting open, intestines pouring out of slit bellies.
In the wrong context that crazy violence wouldn’t do it for me, but as the shock-fuel that powers a well constructed action machine it’s very effective. The most TERMINATOR-like aspect is actually the driving pace; much of the run time is just this guy chasing and attacking Princess and anyone she’s with from location to location. Of course there’s some down time and some business about the backgrounds of Princess and ChromeSkull, but Hall keeps it moving for much of its 90 minutes, and comes up with interesting complications. For example, Steven is mourning his mother who just died, so when they have to go in the funeral home (“That’s where I’m from!” says Princess when she spots it) he has to wait outside, knowing her body is in there. And ChromeSkull runs out of tapes and forces Princess to go buy him more.
Dekker’s Tommy enters the movie with his bro Anthony (Anthony Fitzgerald, “Screaming Fan (uncredited),” THE MIGHTY DUCKS) as some obnoxious dudes who drive past playing a song about “sexy bitches” on their way “to Hotlanta for an all week rave” and then get caught with Princess in a standoff inside a convenience store. There’s a cool/upsetting part where the convenience store clerk (Lucas Till, WOLVES, MONSTER TRUCKS) figures out that Princess is being threatened by someone outside, but overestimates his ability to intervene. Like, he thinks it’s a normal asshole who he can scare off. You’re sorry to see how that goes for him.
There’s nothing supernatural about ChromeSkull, and his biggest technological advantage is his impossibly sharp knives. It still seems like an uphill battle, but let’s just say they figure out some pretty good ways to fuck him up. In the violence department, this definitely delivers.
I’m not saying LAID TO REST is necessarily one of the greats, but it’s damn good to see a movie from this century that has the beating heart of the old school, but not in a retro way at all; one that inarguably is doing its own weird thing with the killer’s gimmicks and that gleefully pushes the envelope of “kills” the way they used to do when Tom Savini was king and movies like HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME would try to one-up him. I don’t know if anybody’s one-upped this one yet. I’m impressed.
P.S. Other 2009 horror movies: HALLOWEEN remake II, FRIDAY THE 13TH remake, MY BLOODY VALENTINE remake, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT remake, (The House On) SORORITY ROW remake, THE STEPFATHER remake, [REC] 2, THE DESCENT 2, THE GRUDGE 3, SAW VI, SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, DRAG ME TO HELL, DAYBREAKERS, ORPHAN, JENNIFER’S BODY, THE COLLECTOR, THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE, THE BOX, ZOMBIELAND.