Humongous (1981) **
Even in a subgenre characterized by the near-universal dismissal and contempt it elicits from critics both mainstream and underground, Humongous stands out for eliciting universal dismissal and contempt. Not once have I read a review of this movie that didn’t pass over it in one or two terse sentences, to the effect that it is an utterly predictable and entirely forgettable rehash of the 80’s slasher formula. Now far be it from me to break with tradition so drastically as to say Humongous is at all good, but compulsively formulaic? I don’t think so. It may just be because I’ve spent way too much time thinking, in way too much detail, about precisely what the 80’s slasher formula is, but watching Humongous finally convinced me of something that I’d been idly speculating about ever since I last watched director Paul Lynch’s earlier Prom Night— the Canadians weren’t playing by the rules.
Or at any rate, they didn’t play by nearly as many of them as we Yanks did. But who in 1981 would have taken a slasher movie without a prologue sequence seriously? It’s Labor Day, 1946, and the stinking rich owner of the Parsons Lumber Company is throwing a party at the lodge he owns on a remote island. His daughter, Ida (Shay Garner), isn’t having much fun at the fete, however, because one of the other guests is (I think) her ex-boyfriend, and he is incredibly drunk. Cornering Ida out by the wire-mesh kennel where she keeps her big, ferocious dogs, Drunk Guy tries to avail himself of the opportunity to reopen the question of their relationship. Ida doesn’t want to talk about it, and when Drunk Guy makes it perfectly clear that he isn’t going to take “no” for an answer, his harried ex runs away down the hill and into the woods. Drunk Guy follows, and when at last he catches up to her, he grabs her and tosses her down to the ground. Things go from bad to worse swiftly, and before Ida knows it, Drunk Guy has ripped off all her clothes and is busily undoing his own trousers. Back at the lodge, Ida’s father notices that something is bothering the dogs, and he lets them loose to take care of it. Inevitably, it’s the assault on their mistress which is then transpiring that has the dogs in a tizzy, and Drunk Guy just barely has a chance to finish raping Ida before they're on him, tearing him to pieces while Ida watches. Cue opening credits.
36 years later, not far from the island where the Parsons lodge stands, five of the most insufferable, obnoxious young people in slasher movie history are packing their bags for a boat trip across the lake to St. Martin’s. This miserable crew consists of the Simmons siblings— Eric (David Wallace, of Mazes and Monsters and Mortuary), Nick (John Wildman, from Terror Night and Skullduggery), and Carla (Ruby’s Janit Baldwin, whose facial proportions have corrected themselves nicely in the five years since ‘Gator Bait)— along with the brothers’ girlfriends, Sandy Ralston (Janet Julian, from “Battlestar Galactica” and Ghost Warrior) and Donna Blake (Joy Boushel, of Quest for Fire and Cronenberg’s The Fly). And considering that these kids are obviously going to comprise the bulk of this movie’s menu of Expendable Meat... well, let’s just say that it couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of folks. Eric is a personality-deprived douchebag, with no recognizable character traits at all. His sister is a sarcastic bitch, although she at least seems like she’d be sort of fun if she were among people who sucked slightly less. Nick is an outright psychopath, who thinks it’s funny to do things like point loaded rifles at his brother’s head, while Donna is an insecure slut who is obviously dating Nick only because Eric wouldn’t have her. Sandy, last but not least, works as a model, and is therefore shallow and annoying— though as the movie wore on, I came to regard her as the least slap-worthy member of the team. The Simmons gang spends the morning irritating each other (and me too), after which they all clamber aboard Daddy’s big-ass boat and irritate each other some more. When night descends, it brings with it a dense pall of fog, making navigation next to impossible just when the boat is about to enter a treacherous stretch of water strewn with snaggly, pointed rocks lying just below the surface. Eric and Sandy are up on the conning tower while everyone else is below decks, and thus they are the first to spot the small motorboat adrift about 100 yards off the port bow. Changing course to check it out, Eric and Sandy realize that there’s a man in the boat, and that he’s trying to flag them down. After taking his craft in tow and bringing him aboard, the Simmons kids and their girlfriends get a fascinating bedtime story for their troubles.
The man from the boat is a local named Bert Defoe (Layne Coleman, from Abraxis: Guardian of the Universe and The Gate II). Like our heroes, he was on a boating day-trip, but before he could get where he was going, his engine broke down and couldn’t be restarted no matter what he did. When the current carried him into the rocks, he figured that was about it for him until Eric and company arrived on the scene. Bert recommends that his rescuers put in for the night on the lee side of the nearest island (which they’d be able see if it weren’t for all the fog), as the going in this part of the lake is dangerous enough even by daylight and without impenetrable fog to complicate matters. They won’t be able to go ashore, though, because the island is reputed to be a dangerous place. Only one person lives there, a crazy old lady who is said to be connected somehow with the Parsons Lumber family, but because she lets her dozens of vicious attack dogs have the run of the island by night, it would be asking for trouble to spend the night on the beach.
Yes, my perceptive readers, the crazy old lady of whom Bert speaks is indeed the same Ida Parsons we met in the prologue, and spending the night on her island is exactly what these folks are going to do. The mechanism by which screenwriter William Gray sets this up is almost too contrived to be believed. Eric foolishly leaves his brother at the helm of the boat when he goes inside to get some sleep, and Nick decides that he doesn’t like the idea of ovemighting while anchored just off the old lady’s island. He fires up the engine and takes off for the other side of the lake at what is obviously an unsafe speed. Eric rushes topside as soon as he realizes the boat is moving, and between the two of them, the Simmons brothers manage to wreck the boat while fighting over the helm. There’s nothing for it but to swim for the island at that point, but in all the confusion, everybody loses track of Carla— who, as if the situation weren’t already bad enough, isn’t a very good swimmer.
Taking stock of our heroes’ predicament, I must say it all looks pretty bad. The boat caught fire and blew up shortly after hitting the rocks, and there was no time to salvage any kind of provisions— food, fuel, blankets, anything— from it before its final destruction. Carla is missing, Bert broke his leg on a submerged rock while diving for what he thought was safety, and the marooned vacationers can already hear one of the fabled dogs howling in the woods. Nick, realizing that the whole mess is really his fault, decides to play hero, and climbs up the cliff overlooking their corner of the beach to go looking for Carla. In a scene that would really have had some kick to it if only we could see what was going on (Lynch lays on the day-for-night filter so thickly that it’s almost impossible to make out the action), Nick is attacked and pursued through the forest by the dog he heard earlier. The animal has nearly caught up to him again when something big— nay, something Humongous— grabs it by the throat in mid-pounce and strangles it to death. Not waiting around to figure out why he’s still alive, Nick keeps running, and whatever killed the dog runs after him, until it corners him in a decaying boathouse and presumably does away with him.
Needless to say, Nick still hasn’t come back to the makeshift campsite on the beach come sunrise, and Carla is still unaccounted for. This time, it’s Eric’s turn to go wandering in the unnaturally quiet wilderness, and Sandy insists upon coming along. Following Nick’s tracks, the two of them come to the boathouse, but instead of Nick, it’s Carla they find within, sleeping in the shelter of a broken skiff; one assumes she arrived at the boathouse a few hours after Nick and his murderer. Taking Carla with them, they then head farther inland until they reach what remains of the old Parsons lodge. Structurally, the place is still intact, but nobody would ever mistake it for an inhabited dwelling. And once they’ve had a look inside the place, they can easily see why— Ida Parsons is still there, mummified in her easy chair in the parlor. There’s also something in the basement. Something that growls in a way totally unlike what you’d hear from a dog. Something, I might add, that’s about to start killing the rest of the cast.
In the setup, it really is pretty much standard; it’s in the details of the execution that Humongous throws you some curves. To start in the most obvious place, let’s talk about Final Girls for a moment. We all know how to spot ‘em— they’ll be less attractive than their expendable sisters; they’ll be the least outgoing, most straitlaced girls of the bunch; and never, under any circumstances, will they enjoy any meaningful sexual/ romantic success. By that reckoning, there’s just one person in this cast who could possibly survive all the way to the closing credits, and that’s Carla. But guess what— Carla dies! Our final girl is none other than Sandy, who is easily the best-looking girl in the cast, who as a model makes a living exhibiting her body, and who is the only one of the three females to get any action in the bedroom! (Donna tries, sure, but all she and Nick do when they get behind closed doors is fight noisily.) Meanwhile, the oft-observed point about slasher movies that boys die in shock scenes while girls get stalked at length just doesn’t hold true in this case. The deaths of Donna and Carla come out of nowhere, while the lead-up to Nick’s demise is extremely protracted. And finally, it’s worth pointing out that the movie Humongous reminds me of most is not Halloween or Friday the 13th (although it rips off the “pretending to be Mom” scene from Friday the 13th, Part 2 quite shamelessly)— or even Prom Night— but Joe D’Amato’s The Grim Reaper/Anthropophagous the Beast. The remote island depopulated of its natural inhabitants; the house in the woods with the dead woman inside it, where such protagonists as still survive find the clues they need to puzzle out the identity of their lethal stalker; the deformed killer’s cannibalism... I’m not saying Paul Lynch and William Gray were necessarily thinking about The Grim Reaper when they made this, but it’s obvious at least that they were thinking about something more than just the stock slasher templates derived from John Carpenter and Sean Cunningham.
So what holds Humongous back? The biggest problem is that the disregard for proper lighting that Lynch displayed in Prom Night has expanded beyond any excusable limits. Nick’s flight through the woods, first from the dog and then from the killer, is far from the only scene that is undermined by darkness, nor is it even the worst example. Most of the action that takes place inside the Parsons lodge is rendered completely incomprehensible by the fact that it just can’t be seen. And because most of the key scare scenes happen at night, in the old lodge or the boathouse on the beach, the poor lighting and overboard night-filtering have the effect of completely de-clawing the movie. Matters are then made even worse by the needlessly confusing way in which the first half of the story is put together. Character names are difficult to catch, relationships are left annoyingly vague for far too long, and the transition between the prologue and the main action of the film is needlessly jarring— especially considering that there’s really no need for the prologue to be there in the first place. None of the major characters have any connection to the Parsons family, after all, while Sandy figures out that the killer is really Ida’s acromegaliac rape-baby efficiently enough from the evidence available at the lodge. The air of mystery that Lynch and Gray obviously want to surround the first two acts of Humongous would have benefited greatly from dropping the prologue and leaving the audience to discover the killer’s origins along with the other characters. Then it wouldn’t have been necessary to build so much distraction and obfuscation into the beginning of the film in an effort to keep us from figuring out too quickly what’s really going on. Mystery and confusion are not the same thing, and the makers of Humongous would do well to learn the difference.