My notes on Knucklebones
I guess everyone wants to homage the stuff they loved as a kid – no matter how ropey it looks to modern eyes. Curtis Harrington’s 1975 TV movie The Dead Don’t Die was a sly pastiche of the B zombie movies of the 1940s and some wondered why he had bothered. Writer-director Mitch Wilson’s Knucklebones is such a perfect evocation of late 1980s direct-to-video schlock you’d swear it ought to be programmed in Shock Around the Clock at the Scala circa 3.30 in the morning alongside The Lamp, Blue Monkey or The Unnameable.
It has two prologues – one involving Nazis and Druids in a bunker during World War Two, and the other in a Texas garment factory in 1975 – which hint at what happens when a set of two-thousand-year-old bone dice are rolled in a pentagram while a kids’ rhyme is chanted (‘Knucklebones, Knucklebones, blood run red/Knucklebones, Knucklebones, wake the dead’). Then, in present day Texas, naïve teenager Neesa (Julin) is dumped by her ‘fiancé’ (Daniel Walker-Rice), attempts suicide and has a brief trip to Hell – which looks like an empty hospital – before waking up. In a typical just-go-with-it plot development, Neesa’s hot blonde bestie Samantha (Katie Bosacki) tries to jolly her out of depression by dragging her along with weird but hot chick Kia (Taylor Tippins) and two guys – horny jokester Travis (Justin Arnold), notionally sensitive Adam (Cameron Deane Stewart) — to investigate an abandoned, haunted factory. They find a chest containing a Nazi uniform (apparently, lots of war-profiteering firms sold them to the enemy), those damn bones and instructions on how to summon the demon who last manifested to massacre everyone on site in 1975. On a three-to-two vote, the kids opt to roll the bones – demonstrating a fundamental flaw in the democratic process which might count as political comment this year – and Kia becomes a conduit, as her bones snap gruesomely before Knucklebones (Tom Zembrond) crawls out of her wrecked corpse a la Lamberto Bava’s Demons.
The fiend looks like a ragged wino in an ill-fitting skull-mummy mask and cracks wise in a growly, electronically-altered voice as hoping for a string of sequels petering out in the mid-90s, combining elements of Freddy and Pinhead and using a handy selection of tools on the moron kids. Typical is his parody of Travis’s cheap innuendo as he chortles ‘don’t worry, I’ll only put the tip in’ before ramming a chainsaw up the clod’s ass in non-CGI, prosthetics-mess splattery close-up. Since there aren’t enough characters onsite to allow for all the kills the old-school practical make-up effects gang want to get into the film to land that Fangoria cover, a quartet of copper-stripping, drug-taking, sex-having trash types show up and are wiped out within minutes. The ever popular machete-to-the-dick-during-sex-so-gore-splats-on-the-naked-chick gambit is deployed, and a thug gets a blowtorch in the face. Plot stuff happens when Choctaw Bill (Jason Duffy Klemm), survivor of one of the prologues, turns up sleeping rough in the factory where he stupidly got his mother and all her co-workers killed –only so he can explain how to send KB back to Hell, with a million-to-one-throw. That option seems off the table when the demon crushes the bone-dice to powder, but Wilson has thought of a get-out clause which leads to a bloody, quite clever finale.
If this is as thinly-characterised, broadly-played and randomly illogical as the films it homages, then that was probably the point. In a few nice little moments with supporting characters – the sheriff (Tom Young), Neesa’s younger sister (Mary Catherine Wells) – there’s a trace of heart and smarts, and Wilson the writer takes pains to set things up (the sister’s archery skills) rather than just arbitrarily have them happen (basic screenwriting stuff, but so many movies made at this level don’t bother it’s worth noting). The finale and coda are thought-through and satisfying, giving Julin a chance to go to extremes. It’s just a fun, silly, disreputable ride which I enjoyed more than some other recent ’80s homages.