Seeing that it’s Friday the 13th, I was planning on reviewing something mildly Jason related like I did earlier in the year. But with the news of Gunnar Hansen’s passing, I felt like I needed to pay tribute to the first iconic masked maniac of modern horror. I dug through the bargain bins to find a film starring the big guy that I’d never seen…
USA, 1999, Paul Talbot
The executioner decides to spend some quality time taunting Tara. But his moralistic jabs only seem make her grow more wild and enthusiastic. Tara is a serial killer, and proud of it. She is also desperate to have her work published — a collection of stories that she thinks will be remembered on the same level as her murders. Tara pulls out her scrappy book of demented tales and begins to read her executioner a story.
Thus the anthology horror’s wraparound is set in place. And it’s a pretty cool wraparound. Director Paul Talbot has had practice in the sub-genre. He directed the gloriously fun Campfire Tales (1991) and Freakshow (1995), which I’ve not seen. Both his previous anthology outings feature Hansen in the wraparound and were co-directed by William Cooke. With Hellblock 13, Talbot goes solo. At this point, it stands as his final film.
Hellblock 13‘s first story, ‘Watery Grave’, is perhaps its strongest. In a simple no-frills setup, we follow Sherry (Amy R. Swaim), a young mother who has drowned her two children to impress her goofy boyfriend (Kirk Bair). Sherry is not exactly good at lying and her guilt is pretty obvious to the cops. Before they can dig up the evidence and arrest her for filicide, her victims emerge from their watery grave to take their revenge. This all leads to this amazing moment:
Hellblock 13‘s second story, ‘White Trash Love Story’, is ridiculous, but I kind of loved it. It’s a perfect reflection of late 90s Jerry Springerised America. Our protagonist is Heidi Mae (Jennifer Peluso), a trailer trash victim of relentless domestic beatings. Her husband Joe (David G. Holland) throws a pounding into Heidi Mae every time his dinner isn’t perfect (which seems to happen a lot). He even punches her (creating a hellish cyclical nightmare) for using his raw steak to ease the pain of her battered eye. Heidi Mae has had enough of Joe’s bullshit. She visits the trailer park witch for advice.
The final story, ‘Big Rhonda’, is a bit long-winded and occasionally dull but it has some great moments. In this tale, our heroes are a gang of voodoo-loving bikers. They’re off to Mexico, but first they want to pay a visit to Big Rhonda — the corpse of an ex-biker lady who they like to dig up, string up on a crucifix, and splash sacrificial blood down her throat. Despite being dead, Big Rhonda has apparently “taken care” of several undercover cops for the gang. She might just have her work cut out for her in the gang’s latest visit.
Hellblock 13 is definitely not as fun as Talbot’s first effort, Campfire Tales, but it’s certainly not the worst anthology film I’ve seen. It’s packed full of goofy, bloody gore and slimy prosthetics. The effects are uniformly excellent. Sure, Big Rhonda looks pretty wobbly and Heidi Mae’s domestic beating make-up is absurd, but it all works in the context of the film’s tone and style.
There’s no one in the cast that could really be described as a conventionally good actor, but everyone looks to be having a blast. This is one of Debbie Rochon’s most enjoyable performances. She is insanely over the top, which works beautifully for her character. Hansen is equally fun. He looks to be relishing every nasty line he spits out, and his imposing body shape is instantly recognisable as Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s famous monster. The wraparound sequences are definitely the highlight thanks to these two actors.
The anthology is nicely paced and the stories never outstay their welcome — a rarity in this sub-genre. Talbot takes something of a point-and-shoot approach. There’s little outside of static mid-shots. But it gets the job done. There’s at least no shaky cam, which would rear its ugly face in the decade that followed Hellblock 13‘s release. Hellblock 13 looks far, far better than most no-budget horror films being farted out at the moment.
If you’re a fan of Hansen or Rochon, this is a must-see, but even if you’re not, you might get something out of Hellblock 13. It has everything a growing horror fan needs (albeit on a smaller scale): gore, water-soaked child-zombies, a mutant-redneck, acid-fueled bikers, and decapitation. Yes, there is the occasional stretch of nothingness, but if this is at all sounding to your taste, then you’re probably used to that.
Hellblock 13 is available from Troma in bargain bins worldwide. It’s also pretty cheap online.