50 Movies for 50 States: Week 50 – West Virginia, Film – Chillers

Week 50 – West Virginia

Chillers (1987), produced by Troma Entertainment, directed by Daniel Boyd, written by Daniel Boyd, with Jesse Emery, Marjorie Fitzsimmons, Laurie Pennington and David Wohl, cinematography by Bill Hogan, original music by Michael Lipton

In 1987, the film Matewan was released, a dramatization of a 1920 coal miner’s strike in Matewan, a small town in West Virginia. Written and directed by John Sayles, the movie starred Chris Cooper and James Earl Jones, among others. It was nominated for an Oscar. It won an Independent Spirit Award. For a state that isn’t the most represented in the cinema, Matewan would seem the likely choice to represent West Virginia in 50 Movies for 50 States. Without a doubt, it is the most “West Virginia” movie released in 1987 – maybe of all time? Possibly.

Well, I planned to watch Matewan for West Virginia. It was even available to watch instantly on Netflix. But then, before I had a chance to watch it, it expired. I tried to get it through Netflix using the traditional red envelope method, but no luck there either. It’s not “available.” I suppose I could have spent $3 and rented a digital copy through Amazon’s on demand service or through iTunes, but that just wasn’t in the Critical Mass‘s budget.

I hastily searched for a backup movie. It was then I learned all was not lost. Far from it, my friends. Like Jesus turning water into moonshine, 1987 was a miraculous year for West Virginia. That year, the wild hillbillies of the Blue Ridge had produced a second feature film. In this instance, lightning had struck twice in remote Appalachia, thanks to a former West Virginia State College with a dream and a little horror anthology film called Chillers.

A horror anthology film? Joy. I had grown up on the genre. Two of my favorite horror flicks are the Creepshow series. And don’t even get me started on Trilogy of Terror. Truly, if I had walked into a video store – if video stores still existed – and I had seen Chillers and Matewan sitting side-by-side on the shelf I’d probably pick Chillers. Just savor that VHS box art. Are you savoring it? Now go clean up after the nostaliagasm I know you just had.

As for it’s appropriateness here, unlike Matewan, Chillers is written and directed by a West Virginia native. Its cast is entirely West Virginians. This is as West Virginia as you get.

It’s a terrible movie. Spectacularly awful.

From the start, it’s hard to tell what you’re in for. Beginning with the opening credits, I was a little bit horrified and a little bit excited by what might lie ahead. I was horrified at the tackiness of the font chosen for the credit sequence – pink clawed fingers from a demonic being or maybe a really ornery chicken which spelled out the names of the cast and crew. Still, the music was an awesome synthesizer-based little pulsating bit of 1980s direct-to-video goodness. In fact, all the music was pretty good in Chillers. Not just the score, but also the pop and rock songs scattered throughout. I’ve never heard of any of the bands (“Stark Raven?”, “Big Money?”), but I just assumed they were local West Virginia bar bands. After a little bit of web sleuthing, I confirmed this suspicion. Don’t misunderstand me. It’s not the kind of music that wins awards or gets played on the radio. But it might get played on college radio. In fact, it sounds exactly like the kind of music that might get played on college radio in 1987.

While I’m on the topic of what I liked about Chillers – and believe me, it’s a short list so it’s better to get this out of the way now – there was also one or two well done special effects shots and some decent makeup in parts. I was impressed with the job done on a man made up to look like he he had a partially-exposed brain, a highlight of the first – and best — of the five stories that comprise this 90-minute or so long film. Actually, he kind of reminded me of this guy.

Framed around a plot in which five strangers are waiting for a bus and sharing bizarre dreams that they’ve been experiencing, Chillers begins with a story about a woman who swimming at a public swimming pool who discovers that all the other patrons are ghosts. It’s somewhat intriguing – even if, as another blogger pointed out, the lead actress looks like she doesn’t have any teeth and it hurts to look at her.

Maybe that’s why I was so frustrated when it ends seemingly out of nowhere. Abrupt endings are a reoccurring theme for the stories in this film. I guess that makes sense, since the stories are supposed to be dreams the people are recalling – I’m pretty sure it’s more common to wake up in the middle of a dream rather than dream up a tidy little ending. I’m also sure that’s exactly how writer/director Daniel Boyd would explain his inability to write a story with a suitable ending. Still, it’s aggravating to be wondering where a story is going and just have it end. That’s cheap.

Next, a little boy tells a story about a camping trip where he discovers that the adult supervising him and two other pre-teens is a psycho. And he’s obsessed with wolves . Maybe that’s a metaphor – like for adults who are wolves in sheep’s clothing or something. Maybe I just assume all camp counselors are child touchers. All I know is that it’s a mighty fine lesson in stranger danger. The highlight of this story is watching two of 10-year-old kids swearing and smoking. Not to mention the insane over-acting by the “wolf man.”

Story number three is another promising premise that doesn’t really live up to its false promises of chills and thrills. A lonely woman is obsessing over a local news anchor, who talks to her through the television and convinces her to invite him into her apartment. Then, it turns out he’s a vampire. The next thing you know, he and his gothy sister who acts as his caretaker have moved into the apartment. Another stranger danger lesson? Perhaps. There certainly seems to be a lot of moral judgment going on. The women in the first and third story have hop in bed with men they hardly know and get punished for it? And the kids from the second story who don’t obey their camp counselor wind up being terrorized?

Well, then what about the fourth story, in which a man discovers he can bring people back from the dead just by concentrating hard enough. What does he do wrong – except for bring an ax murderer back from the dead? Whoops.

Finally, in the closer, a college professor accidentally teaches his class the incantation to bring the soul of an Aztec warrior back to life. By this point, most rational people would have stopped watching. Why are three out of the five stories about dead people coming back to life anyway? Couldn’t we have thrown in a killer doll or mannequin story? Or how about something with a Faustian premise – a deal with the devil.

By the end of the movie, it’s obvious Boyd is running out of ideas. Chillers could have stood to lose one or two stories – I thought the last two were the weakest. The time gained could have been used to flesh out the remaining stories so that they feel less like the “movies” my friends and I made in high school and college, in which we’d just be fooling around and making up the stories as we went along. Of Course, the difference between Chillers and something like my 15-minute epic slasher film, Oh, What A Tangled Scarf We Weave1, is that none of my movies were an hour and a half long – and our only audience was us. Although I’m proud of my forays into DIY film-making, I don’t expect any of my classics to ever be made available to the general public.

Did I mention that there’s a surprise twist at the end of the movie? There’s a surprise twist at the end of the movie.

Chillers is distributed by Troma, but don’t expect the company’s usual level of gore and nudity as this film appears to merely be one of their many straight-to-video acquisitions. I don’t think Lloyd Kaufman and Co. had any hand in the film’s content. So, if you’re hoping for a cameo by Toxie or Kabukiman, you’re going to be disappointed. (This movie is “toxic,” however, so perhaps there’s a connection there.)

I’ve read a thing or two about there being an “unedited” version of Chillers. No amount of cutting or pasting can bring this dud back to life. Maybe an ancient Aztec incantation could do the trick. Or maybe it’s like the man from the fourth story who gains the ability to bring people back from death learns: some things are better off buried.

Unfortunantly, it’s available on YouTube.

Next week: It’s all downhill from here. Wisconsin.

1. Yes. This is a real thing. No, you can not see it.


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