Grotesque (1988) Grotesque (1988) -***

     I first learned about Grotesque from the guy who turned me on to Savage Streets 20-odd years ago. If that sounds like a long time to take in following up a tip, all I can say is that Matt’s personal copy was the only one I’d come across in all that time, and it’s challenging to maintain a friendship with someone who marries your ex. Now that I’ve finally seen Grotesque, though, it makes perfect sense to me that he would have recommended both those films. Like Savage Streets, Grotesque is a Linda Blair vehicle from the 80’s, in which the villains are a gang of hooligans who can plausibly be interpreted as punk rockers. But more than that, it also cycles through several genres as its story progresses, including some that aren’t normally treated as having much to do with each other, and it stands a couple of them on their heads while it’s at it.

     Grotesque begins enigmatically, with an old crone (Luana Patten) soliloquizing in voiceover atop both the opening credits and the image of a spooky hilltop house at night. When we see Voiceover Hag at last, she turns out to be done up in the manner of a woman much younger and prettier— and in fact we’re also shown a series of intrusive flashes of just such a person (Stacey Alden, from A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors), identically dressed and coiffed, lounging about the same lavishly appointed yet rather pagan-looking boudoir. In both her guises, the woman lies down upon her bed to await the arrival of a hulking, inhuman fiend in a hooded, black robe. The monster embraces the crone, and sinks its fangs into her throat—

     —at which point we cut to the screening room where the senior crew of the newly completed horror movie we’d been watching are reviewing the answer print in company with representatives of the studio for which it was made. All concerned are pleased with the work, particularly with the special makeup effects by Orville Kruger (Guy Stockwell, from Santa Sangre and The Monitors).

     Now that the film is in the can and meets with the studio’s approval, Kruger is looking forward to getting away from Los Angeles for a while. Specifically, he’s looking forward to spending a leisurely few weeks at the lodge in Big Bear Lake that he and his wife, Malinda (Alva Megowan, of Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time and Party Favors), bought about five years ago. Malinda evidently lives there year round, looking after the couple’s developmentally disabled foster son, Patrick (Robert Apica, from Serpent Warrior and Hard Target), but Orville’s job obviously prevents him from doing the same. This particular retreat to Big Bear Lake is shaping up to be a veritable family reunion, too, for not only is Orville and Malinda’s daughter, Lisa (the aforementioned Linda Blair, of Roller Boogie and Sorceress), planning on following her dad eastward a few days later, but Orville’s plastic surgeon brother, Rod (Tab Hunter, from Out of the Dark and Sweet Kill), is supposed to be dropping in a day or two after that.

     Nor, as it happens, will Lisa be coming alone. Her friend, Kathy (Donna Wilkes, of Blood Song and Angel), is having romantic troubles at the moment, and Lisa figures a country getaway will be just the thing to take Kathy’s mind off of shitty guys. After all, Lisa’s room at the lodge is plenty big enough for two. There’s considerable irony in that, however, because the whole Kruger family is about to become much better acquainted with shitty guys— and shitty girls, too, for that matter— than they could ever have imagined. On the way to Big Bear Lake, Lisa and Kathy have a run-in with a whole van-load of psychotic and bizarrely superannuated punk rockers, led by a career criminal who calls himself Scratch (Brad Wilson, of Pterodactyl Woman from Beverly Hills, proving that somehow it is indeed possible to be the poor man’s Richard Grieco). Neither girl thinks anything more of it after they reach the lodge, but in point of fact Scratch and the gang have exactly the same destination in mind. Scratch’s girlfriend, Shelly (Michelle Bensoussan), who seems to have her head screwed on tightest out of the whole crew, has heard tell that the little mountain town is home to some rich-as-fuck Hollywood types, and that local gossip says they’re hiding something up at their lodge. There’s no word specifically on what that might be, but Scratch is reckoning on money, jewels, or maybe even a stash of Hollywood-grade dope. He also reckons that a secluded lodge high in the San Bernardino Mountains is the perfect target for a home-invasion robbery, and that he and his seven followers will be more than a match for anyone they might find up at the Kruger place when they launch their attack.

     Scratch, Shelly, and the others have it all wrong, of course. There’s no hoard of cash, jewels, drugs, or anything else of significant street value at the Kruger lodge, and the only secret the family’s been keeping is Patrick. You see, Orville and Malinda’s foster son isn’t just mentally deficient. He’s also a hunchback with a face that looks like it’s melting off of his skull in globs, and he’s roughly the size of a small silverback gorilla, and almost superhumanly strong and tough. The Krugers decided a long time ago that, all things considered, it would be safest for everyone to keep Patrick out of sight, well insulated from thoughtless strangers who might be tempted to start trouble, and get more than they were prepared to handle. Even Patrick’s suite is well hidden, so that no visitor to the lodge would ever think to wonder what’s behind that door that’s always kept locked whenever company comes. Honestly, it’s amazing that there was any town gossip for Shelly to pick up on in the first place!

     Be that as it may, when the punks hit the lodge, Patrick will be watching. He’ll see through his well-concealed one-way window into the living room when Belle (Bunky Jones, from The Kindred and Hide and Go Shriek), the loosest of Scratch’s loose cannons, gets carried away while interrogating Orville, and beats him to death. He’ll hear through the ceiling of his room the similarly horrid fates that subsequently befall Malinda and Kathy when various subsets of Scratch’s minions drag them upstairs to guide a search of the house. And he’ll see it once again when Lisa breaks free, and flees into the snowy night with the semi-feral Ear Box (Billy Frank, of Vampire Knights and Hobgoblins) in hot pursuit. And then once Sandy (Tracy Hutchinson) and Eric (Robert Z’Dar, of Soultaker and Cherry 2000) discover Patrick’s secret apartment and force the door expecting to find the coveted vault, safe, or whatever at last, Patrick will be in a position to do something about them and their sicko comrades. Eric, Sandy, and Belle fall in rapid succession before the vengeful freak’s wrath, but Scratch, Shelly, Gibbs (Nels Van Patten, from Camp Fear and Lunch Wagon), and Donna (Sharon Hughes, of Chained Heat and The Last Horror Film) all last long enough to make their own breaks into the forest. The four of them together might have had a chance against Patrick, but once they get separated in the intensifying blizzard, it’s only a matter of time.

     It should go without saying, then, that Rod is in for a shock when he arrives the following morning. So, for that matter, is Orville’s regular weekend fishing buddy, Jim Fulton (Chuck Morrell). Jim is the first on the scene, and he immediately calls the local sheriff (Robert Zoller) when he finds his old pal’s house broken into and strewn with corpses. Fulton can even help a bit with identifying the four dead strangers on the premises, for both the girls and the gang had stopped at his general store yesterday on their respective ways into town. The sheriff spends the next hour or two rounding up men for a heavily armed search party, and then the rest of the morning locating the bodies of Gibbs, Donna, and Ear Box, together with the unconscious but still living Lisa Kruger. Then at last, getting on toward lunchtime, the searchers come upon Scratch and Shelly, just in time to save them from Patrick. Rod, who’s been in on the search from jump, does his damnedest to protect the big freak (thereby alerting us that he’s privy to his brother’s secret), but you know how posses are. It takes a surprising number of bullets to put Patrick down, but down he goes just the same.

     Scratch and Shelly aren’t half as dumb as they look. No sooner does the gunsmoke clear than they begin feeding the sheriff a line of bullshit about a leaky radiator forcing them to seek help at the Kruger lodge, and casting Patrick in approximately the role that they themselves played in the actual course of events. Rod, of course, knows that’s preposterous, and tells the sheriff as much— but he wasn’t there last night, so what does that really prove? Fulton, similarly, can and does testify that the punks had already been obviously looking for trouble when they visited his store that afternoon— but he wasn’t up at the lodge, either, until long after the massacre took place. Lisa Kruger, who was there, is in a coma from which she has no better than coin-toss odds of ever emerging. And the inconvenient facts remain that six of the victims were Scratch and Shelly’s friends, that Patrick was savagely attacking Scratch when the posse came along, and that the two surviving punks have been keeping their stories perfectly straight so far. The one thing the sheriff has against them is their van, which although barely drivable in a way superficially consistent with their testimony, is a Volkswagen Microbus, and therefore doesn’t have a radiator. It’s enough to tell the sheriff that the outsiders are lying about something, but not basis enough on which to charge them with any crime. All he can do unless and until Lisa recovers is to hold Scratch and Shelly for 48 hours. 48 hours might be enough time, though, for Rod to cook up a little vigilante justice. He just needs to find himself both an unlicensed firearm and a pair of surgical gurneys…

     For those of you who haven’t been keeping score, Grotesque starts with feint into gothic horror, transforms into a punk rock version of The Last House on the Left, and then mutates again into a slasher movie where the subhuman/superhuman killer is the hero. Then, having disposed of said killer with half an hour still on the clock, it shifts genres a third time to become a Death Wish knockoff in which the Paul Kersey figure is a mad plastic surgeon, like a remake of The Man They Could Not Hang with the politics of Rudi Giuliani. And as if all that weren’t enough, it ends by faking us out once more, in a manner akin to, but much weirder than, what it did in the beginning. Whatever else we might say about director/co-writer Joe Tornatore, he sure was dedicated to keeping us on our toes! That’s the same Joe Tornatore, by the way, whom we’ve seen playing Mafiosi and racist cops in blaxploitation movies ranging from Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song to Black Samson. He wasn’t nearly as prolific behind the camera as he was in front of it, but from what I can make out, Tornatore’s career as a director was impressively, reliably weird. Nevertheless, Grotesque seems to have been pretty far off the wall even for him.

     What I love about this movie is that it misdirects you constantly, even leaving aside the repeated genre shifts and “reality is not what you thought it was” tricks. Linda Blair gets to be neither Final Girl nor avenging angel. Scratch and Shelly turn out to be much quicker and savvier thinkers than their deranged belligerence prior to their capture by the sheriff’s search party would begin to suggest. Rod is capable of cruelties to equal anything the psycho punks can devise, but doesn’t get quite the same kind of pass for them that the protagonists of vigilante revenge movies usually enjoy. Plot and character details that look like obvious Chekhov’s guns are either red herrings instead, or pay off in totally unexpected and counterintuitive ways. And yet there’s a strange incidental quality to all these subversions and inversions, so that I’m honestly not sure to what extent Tornatore and Mike Angel (who turned Tornatore’s concept and characters into a filmable screenplay) understood how many expectations they were violating, and to what extent they were just going on wildly miscalibrated instinct. Then, of course, there’s the ending— and I don’t even know what to say about that, beyond that I’m sure street cleaning crews all over Los Angeles County were picking up stray fragments of the fourth wall for weeks following Grotesque’s premiere. It’s a completely nonsensical, superfluous, and frankly stupid way to bring this story to a close, but once it happens, it also feels somehow inevitable, like merely the final and most extreme iteration of what Grotesque had been doing all along.



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