Headhunter (1988) Review by RevTerry

I love the grown up Jason Voorhees character as much as anyone and wouldn't want to do away with the hours of entertainment the Friday the 13th movies series has brought me through extreme stretches of the imagination. With that being said, I think the first one is a solid horror flick all its own, which doesn't get enough love from the fanbase. Admittedly, it angers a purist nerd inside of me when horror fans shun it for the general shortage of Jason.  It may not feature the baby boy (that we have all come to embrace dearly) as its antagonist, but as a stand-alone story, it's one of the (if not the) strongest straight horror movie in the series. No magic or anything, just a pissed off crazy mom, killing campers that have nothing to do with her son's death (sorry--spoilers for the first Friday). It is certainly the one in the bunch that is most grounded, which alone has its merits in the genre.  I do have one complaint, however, and it bugs the fuck out me. During the final showdown, lone survivor Alice Hardy is able to lop off Momma Voorhees head with a single wimpy cut. It's not even a full swing. She just kind of moves out the machete and Miss Voorhees does all the work by standing there. Nothing adds up, the old lady's head goes flying off like a medieval execution. It's not a fucking Troma film set in some rubber reality where extremities pop off of humans like Lego men. She doesn't even have a proper stance going on. I'm usually so easy to please in this regard, there is just something about the whole moment and its placement in the film. It haunts me in all the wrong ways. Every time I see the severed head in the later Friday the 13th movies, all I can think about is how clean the cut is.  It would be different if the girl were walking around with huge forearms and a stress ball the whole movie. Cinema decapitation is probably always unrealistic from a medical standpoint, but I'm not asking for realism-- just something to work with. I never have an issue when it’s a raging momma's boy hopped up on undead steroids (like you-know-who), a killer clown from outer space with a mean left-hook, or a sentient Nigerian curse with infinite unexplained powers like the one in Headhunter (1988).
Somewhere in Miami, an otherwise joyous street festival gets cut short by an unusually ominous dust cloud. The crowd scatters, but amidst the panic, a Nigerian man is attacked by an unseen force and has his head removed. Across town, we meet officer Pete Giullani (Wayne Crawford) whose wife (June Chadwick) has just left him for another woman and kicked him out. Inebriated and with nowhere else to go, he attempts to stumble his way into his partner Katherine Hall’s window for a place to sleep, interrupting boyfriend-sexy time in the process. After some drunken blubbering, Katherine (Kay Lenz) offers up the couch, like any good homie, and lays Pete’s delirious ass down for the night. The next morning, the two report for duty at the station, with the freshly single Pete still milking a hangover and acting overall bummed.  Eventually, following an embellished tale of romance from a co-worker and a heart to heart, the two are dispatched by their bigoted boss (Steve Kanaly) to investigate the headless dude from the block party. On arrival, they find the crime scene adorned in religious material with the indication that the victim was performing a ritual of some kind. Things get weirder fast as the wound has cauterized and the head is nowhere to be found in the area. Initially sure that the bizarre case will be solved with quick thinking and good old fashioned unpolished police work, the two hit the streets while simultaneously dealing with officer Pete's emotions. Unknowingly, their investigation puts a target on the longtime partners, and they soon find themselves up against a mystic force far beyond law, order and relationship issues. Also a bunch more people get their heads popped off, Pete gets thrown through two windows and Katherine continues to have dates interrupted.
With a recipe three parts silly cop drama to one part supernatural thriller, the film devotes a lot of time to building its down-and-out human characters. The bulk of the story follows comic-esque Miami detectives as they deal with both personal and work issues (i.e., cheating spouses, angry bosses, etc.) Mr. magic-ghost-monster stays hidden for ninety percent of the film, completing his head removals through sly gusts of wind, invisible surprise and an otherwise unmentioned lightning/electricity abilities of some kind. Victims seem to be picked at random, and there is little logic to the nature of the curse. A professor/shaman (Gordon Mulholland) shows up for a little while to explain why the Nigerian curse will eventually go after the police officers, but even that is a bit shaky and receives some contradiction later on. Inexplicably, the demon lays out complicated traps (involving assuming dead loved one's identities) for the protagonist, previously having moved unseen from place to place, killing at will. I guess it's possible the monster has a particular boner for the disgruntled duo and wants to add some extra torture, but it feels unnecessary when he has just plucked off human heads over the film’s run without any fanfare. The most consistent focus lay in the relationship between partners Katherine and Pete. It's essentially just a cop movie with a scary magic curse thing as its criminal. Not quite a true buddy comedy, as it is missing the mismatched adjustment period, but it borrows much of the genre’s cheesy values. Instead of being newly acquainted opposites, the relationship is well worn with a past full of (albeit more normal) adventures behind it. Despite not being what the cover promised, these moments work pretty well, and to the story's credit, I was surprised when it didn't lead to a tacked on a romantic relationship between the main two characters. After getting over the bait and switch, I was mostly satisfied with its awkward police station hijinks. It moves quickly enough and has an essence similar to the procedural nonsense I grew up seeing on TV as a child. Think less X-Files and more a very special Halloween episode of NYPD Blue-- with mystic shit based on stereotypes instead of drug dealers based in stereotypes. Some of the details of the film skate by issues like racism, religion, and homophobia with a sheepish nod. While this isn't abnormal for any films in this genre (or trash in general), in this case, it feels as if the movie originally had a satirical moral point to all of the hot topics lying around that was sheared in its development.  Without the completion of these thoughts, unfortunately, it just looks like it knew how shitty and antiquated a few of its tropes were but included them anyway. Deeper points shine through, mostly poking fun at dogma universally, but even the best moments kind of miss their landing in this regard. It's also possible that I'm giving it too much credit on some level. Either way, it works best with minimal brain juice and wastes many opportunities. The hard-boiled chaos all mushes together into watchable B-movie trash while it is on the screen. The final bit of action throws almost everything out the window plot-wise for a showdown, the big reveal, and a cute wink between partners. If Shane Black had gone on a two-day whiskey binge in Florida with Tim Kincaid instead of making Lethal Weapon in 1987, the resulting collaboration might have looked like Headhunters.
In contrast to its broken story, the film’s technical aspects mostly play it safe and appear somewhat complete. Borrowing from its crime thriller influences, the camera maneuvers around cluttered and cramped spaces with effective haste. The film is conservative with its special effects, putting the most energy into cultivating a claustrophobic city atmosphere along the lines of a Running Scared (1986) or a low rent Predator 2 (1990). Utilizing messy indoor locations and ugly streets, it builds a sort of cartoon noir to connect the broken plot development. Anything outside of metro grime and slums ends up a little more flat. The dream sequences come off as a budget imitations of The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), without ever getting the vibe quite right. When the monster finally shows up, it looks like a mix of the Creeper (from Jeepers Creepers 2001) and Rawhead Rex (from Rawhead Rex 1986). The creature work brought in for the final act does the job but benefits substantially from being brief. Thrown in at random, the gore is fairly tame for the darker tone and of varied effectiveness. As the go-to kill, the beheadings are a functional balance of fun and stupid, amounting to clean “cut” rubber heads crashing into scenery from off-screen. Towards the final act, it ramps up a little with more realistic carnage and brutality but only for a brief second and after the fact. The score is mostly ignorable with the glaring exception of a repeated unleveled synth track that comes out of nowhere during intense moments and leaves just as irregularly. I think it's someone's answer to the Beverly Hills Cop theme (aka Axel F by Harold Faltermeyer), only it comes closer to something that would have accompanied a space battle a few years before. 
The film was directed by Frank Schaeffer from a script by Len Spinell. Author, artist and public speaker, Schaeffer is the son of prominent theologian and hate monger Francis Schaeffer. Initially following suit and joining the family cult, Frank became openly critical of the group in the 80s and eventually released a series of books related to the subject. Schaeffer’s personal interest may have led to the film’s satirical moments as the more developed jabs take aim at Christianity or religion in general. One particular dive into dark humor depicts a priest who promises safeguard from the perceived curse if a group of Nigerians converts to Christianity. When the monster then shows up (Jaws-style) in the middle of his river baptism, the church leader skedaddles, leaving his new flock to die. As a filmmaker, Schaeffer put together a somewhat eclectic catalog of five films concluding with Baby on Board in 1992 (starring Judge Reinhold). An active author today, he made a stir during the 2008 presidential election with an anti-abortion article in support of Obama. I can't really speak to all of his politics, but he seems like a passionate guy. Keeping a horrorless majority of the film from dragging, the chemistry between Kay Lenz and Wayne Crawford feels natural in the face of disjointed writing. The two get the TV partner thing on the money, and I could easily see them returning weekly together. I can't place Crawford anywhere else, but he works well here as the chain-smoking cliche cop, Pete Giullani (who plays by his own rules and has terrible posture). Kay Lenz is loyal-partner and back-up Katherine Hall. Lenz, who first comes to mind as Sandy Sinclair from House (1985), is given a lot less to go on than Crawford, making up for the disparency herself with some awesome mean mugs. Also, keep an eye out for June Chadwick from the original V series and Steve Kanaly as racist police Captain Ted Calvin who still sounds a lot like Ray Krebbs from Dallas (despite being in Miami).
Headhunter (1988) is a rapid release blend of intriguing ideas dissolved into the unfinished pilot for a supernaturally themed Law & Order spin-off. As long as you don't take it quite as seriously as it takes itself sometimes, it's a pleasurable way to watch a series of plots go nowhere, and see people get their heads expertly cut off by nothing. Its a fucking mess of a film filled with untapped potential and dead ends that is engaging enough to sit through in the right mindset. Everything about its artwork and synopsis tries to sell a different kind of film than what's actually inside, so an initial blind viewing can be a little rocky. Though it doesn't make it a great movie, you have to respect its upfront policy regarding flying heads. It has a grip of problems, but I wouldn't think to count the decapitation physics among them. In that regard (alone) it has Friday the 13th beat. While I'll always defend the classic slasher for its striking lack of Jason, its final kill undeniably sours the experience. By every prior indication the first F13 film takes place in a reality a lot like our own, and here in the real world, old people's heads don't just pop off the neck without some work. Not that I have experience or anything.
(sorry couldn't find an English trailer)
Director: Francis Schaeffer
Writer: Len Spinell

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Review by:
RevTerry

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