‘That’s Ronnie’s bandana! Oh my God, what’s happened to him? He never goes anywhere without it!’
I’m always surprised that Bill Rebane (The Demons of Ludlow, The Giant Spider Invasion, The Alpha Incident) gets only a fraction of the attention which goes to Ted V. Mikels, Ray Dennis Steckler, H.G. Lewis, Andy Milligan, Larry Buchanan and other fringe filmmakers: his movies are just as cheap, often comical and ‘out there’ but usually much more entertaining (his films have pace, while most of the other filmmakers cited tend to turn out very draggy pictures that seem more fun in excerpt than whole) and often studded with good ideas and sequences alongside the schlockier elements. Made in 1984– as a few ugh outfits and hairstyles reveal, though the music score and general look have a mid-70s vibe which comes from Rebane (like his peers) sticking to the way they made films at the beginnings of their careers and never really moving on.
As a rhyming storybook narration establishes, George (Stuart Osborne), Horace (Don Arthur) and Maude (Carol Perry), three middle-aged millionaires, have got bored with bridge, tennis, and other pastimes and now play an annual game with people (‘You know it never fails to amaze me what some folks will do for a million dollars’). They invite a cross-section of contestants (ie victims) to a vast resort (the Northernaire, an impressive, borrowed location) to play what now seems like a typical reality TV schtick, putting up with tarantulas in the tea, snakes in the swimming pool, a low-rent Alien imitation monster erupting from the bedclothes, a sauna that locks and turns freezing, apparent ghosts, enforced Russian roulette and other contrived indignities (a William Castle-like rattling headless skeleton in the cupboard) until only one remains (either alive or on the property) to collect the million-dollar payoff. The players are typical broadly-played: coolly cerebral Jon (Tom Blair), moustached hothead stud Joe (Jim Iaquinta) more intent on scoring with chicks (though he gets angsty and intense when one of the girls shows up shot in the head – ‘Whoever has done this has called the tune, but I’m the piper and I promise I’ll make them pay for this – permanently!’), puritanical if daffy Southern blonde Shelly (Pamela Roehler), mannish-hairstyled Karen (Debbie Martin), voluptuous Cindy (Lori Minneti) and a couple of other disposables. Also lurking around is a hunchbacked escaped mental patient/handyman Felix Kramer (Alan G. Rainer), who turns out to be a British-accented actor. ‘There is no Felix Kramer,’ he deadpans. ‘Felix Kramer is just my interpretation of a hunchback played in the rather grandiose manner of the old silent films. I rather look upon myself as a young Charles Laughton or a Rex Harrison.’
There’s cheery Scott Joplin music (out of copyright – the association with The Sting probably ties in with its multiple fake-out bits). The pranksters are seen in fright-masks cackling and enjoying their trickery behind the scenes (even having a singalong to ‘Jimmy Crack Corn’ or ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’), though there’s a mid-film plot development as they start to suspect one or more of the players is playing their own game and scrambling their trickery with gruesome tricks of their own – which may or may not be the case. It has multiple endings on the is-it-real-or-not theme (like the later David Fincher film which took its original title). The surviving three players depart on the assumption it’s all been in good fun only for a dry ice cloud, electronic whining (with baby cries and cackles mixed in) and a scowling ghost bride to assail the three millionaires, chase them around the resort and leave them frozen to death in that sauna. But then, after the closing narration, the corpses wake up laughing. It’s a film that’s impossible to spoil, since it’s impossible to explain.
As in The Demons of Ludlow, Rebane does the supernatural on the cheap but not without raising a few chills: there are surreal moments – like the inexplicable monster scene – that are just dropped in as if this were an Italian movie. To up the exploitation content, there’s a great deal of swimwear/nightwear titillation between terrors. Self-referentially, Rebane has a horror host introduce his The Giant Spider Invasion on TV – which also sets up the real (large but not giant) spiders that feature in the torment. Written by William Arthur and Larry Dreyfus.