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Like the embrace of a lover, new socks, and being intoxicated at a buffet, the appeal of bad movies can not be truly quantified.  I can say there is more than one way to enjoy a film if you have the right mindset. The habit of seeking out films with a negative reputation has provided me as many meaningful life experiences as polished cinema itself has, if only on vastly different levels. In fact, some times, hearing someone complain can be enough to propel me towards a title. I'm not always rewarded for this policy (fuck you Bagger Vance), but it's worth it anyway because every so often I find myself fully engulfed in a masterful trainwreck where ideas become twisted and new on impact. Never quite the same, the actual payout for these ventures comes with their indescribable flavors and evolving values for each mood. At its best, a bad movie is simultaneously authentic, ambitious, unintentionally hilarious and partially incoherent. It's not something that can be streamlined, and it's hardly reproduced. The horde of tributes as of late can be fun, but ultimately you cannot capture lightning in a bottle without severe burns. Some of the greatest adventures I have stumbled upon were nothing short of happy accidents where everything had to go wrong in the perfect way. Obviously, there is a wide range of films that classify as "bad"--from the cheap, offensively low brow to just fucking broken. Some combinations are more enjoyable than others and can have wildly different effects from person to person. The slasher genre is an Infamous goldmine for quality garbage. It's amazing how the basic stab em up formula on repeat has given birth to a rainbow of freak bastard children throughout the ages. The niche is historically cheesy, frugal and sleazy; prime ingredients for cinematic junk food. Whether it comes in the form of lazy, by the numbers, titty-filled fan service, story-less gore, or a failed passion project, ambitions and failure can produce unrepeatable art when you least expect it. For an unteachable graduate class in intoxicating heaps and a minor in rocket science, we can take a look at Horror House on Highway Five (1985).
In a questionable and only half explained bid for extra credit, a group of college students heads out on a likely unsanctioned field trip on "Old Highway Five" to launch a model rocket. According to their history/science professor (Randy Daitch), their destination holds topical significance as it was reportedly the final home of the notorious Nazi astrophysicist Frederick Bartholomew. While most of the group is on its way, their classmate Sally Smith (Irene Cagen) embarks on a lone side-mission given to her by the professor to visit the late, probably evil, Nazi-guy's associates, living in his former home. On the clumsy coed’s arrival, she is greeted by Dr. Marbuse (Phil Therrien) and his childlike brother Gary (Max Manthey) who claims to have known Bartholomew well and wants Sally to hang out. After a short chat and evasion of capture, she leaves only to come back immediately after and is promptly kidnapped. At the same time, the rest of the academic adults have started prepping for their middle school science project in the prescribed field. Unfortunately, there is a killer in a Richard Nixon mask on the loose stabbing people with impractical sharp things. Unlikely and unrelated mayhem follows. Even if I could put the rest to words, I wouldn't want to spoil a possible twist. I will say, it involves a magical dead cat, invisible monsters and boob ironing—also just a hint of necrophilia.
From the get-go, the film set a precedent for an odd and eclectic grab-bag with little context. Opening with tarot cards, a mistreated pet and Nixon shanking someone with a glass shard, it only finds stranger shit to attach as it proceeds down its path. The ungrounded narrative jumps from uncomfortable situations without rhythm, scarcely holding together the familiar genre backdrop. While incurably singular, the "story" seems to have bloomed from the average slasher basics. It's as if someone took a sample of horror cinema and had it reinterpreted by an extraterrestrial tourist with limited actual earth experience. Most of the elicited giggles are unintentional although the film stocks a goofy, mean spirited comedy throughout. At least, I think that it is intended as such, as it swells at inopportune times and bleeds into the supposed terror. If you could take all the moments that felt off in Blood Diner (1987) and shove them into A Night To Dismember (played at 1.5x the speed), it may come close to Highway Five's demeanor. It's hard to understand what the film's true intentions are, as every action comes from such a strange point of view and no one stands still long enough to give any hints. With the casual plod of three-wheeled ice cream truck, the story drives around picking up strange elements until it finally circles back with no purpose. A concrete subject can't be discerned at any point, as brain parasites, Nazi magic and a pile of cat guts take turns in focus. And while that's not even the extent of its out of place gags, nothing is explored past a cryptic introduction. Anything goes, from flying POV monsters to immortal sickos, barely stuck together by a puzzling tone and a general location. Every character behaves free of logic, and the movie ends without insight on their behavior. None of it is particularly shocking (for a b-movie) on its own, but the misassembled Frankenstein monster has a way of unironically stumbling over itself with a goofy unnerving smile. I'm almost a hundred percent sure the psychedelic push into Avant-Garde territory is less about art cred than it was the number of cheap drugs the filmmakers were on. All that being said, it's got more character than ninety percent of exhibitions that tried their best to be weird. There isn't really a story and what is there is fucking whacked, but I'll be damned if it isn't an entertaining loss of brain cells.
While the underdeveloped possible satire belongs unmistakably to the 80s, much of the editing has the distinct flavor of a grindhouse roughie. The cuts linger without purpose to shake around in place or pan away towards a random part of the wall before moving on. Almost every opening is trimmed into the scene too far, adding to the constant feeling there is a crucial missing element that explains why any of this is happening. The transitions that do exist, only seem to indicate the movie has reached its end and fade to black at arbitrary intervals in the run-time. In any version I have seen, the picture quality is abysmal, and the film doesn't shy from dark scenes that show little more than the outline of figures. A variety of barren walls and outside locations make it difficult to get a sense of direction. I'm assuming all the inside scenes are supposed to be the same place, but if so, it's got a fucked up floor plan. The dubbing varies between slightly mistimed to Kung Fu movie-level lipsyncing. The first few victims sound like the same cartoon hick, and I wouldn't be surprised if the whole cast was voiced by three people in post.  Requisite nudity and gore are comparably light, saved by the fact the entire creation is covered in deviant grime. If somehow a time-traveling Chris Seaver met Doris Wishman in the middle of the 80s, their collaboration would come close to the style on display. The soundtrack is my favorite part and plays into the out of place retro vibes. For most of the time, it's an autonomous entity, picking songs with no regard to what's on screen. As if fashioned by a teenage Quentin Tarantino on LSD, the mixtape of accompanying pieces includes hippy love ballads, creepy organ, and desperado guitar twang. When it does play off the rest of the movie, it goes for the complete opposite vibe as if the DJ was bummed there weren't any nostalgic scenes to score, so they made their own from anything available. In some cases, the sounds are so precise in their negating of the tension that it's hard not to look for a deeper meaning (with futility). It fits, as the production’s only unifying factor is viewer confusion.
Before tackling the psychotronic slasher, director Richard Casey had made some sort of name for himself with music videos. He provided visuals for Blue Öyster Cult's Burnin' for You, and two tracks for Aldo Nova. Horror House on Highway Five was his first full-sized picture, although he is listed as a production assistant for the cult favorites Alligator and Galaxina in 1980. Casey shortly followed it up with another low budget occult-thriller-comedy Hellbent (1988), and in 1995  jumped back to music for Angry Samoans: True Documentary. In his most recent work and third feature film, the director returned to the horror house concept (only one highway over) with a remake/sequel in 2014 for the straight to the DVD market, Horror House on Highway 6. By the director's account, Highway 5 was filmed during weekends, over six years in the homes of loyal cast and crew members. Among the brave and willing participants was Bill Pope who worked with Casey in the music industry and would go on to provide cinematography for a slew of big money pictures (including The Matrix, Spider-Man 2, Alita: Battle Angel). Two-time robot (THX 1138, 1971 and Heartbeeps 1981) Irene Cagen (credited here as Irene F. for union reasons) appears here as Sally Smith--dizzy victim, and de facto main character. After the mid-90s she would mostly stay on the other side of the camera and to date has over twenty credits as casting director. An appropriate cocktail of unsettling cheese, Phil Therrien makes one of his four career roles as Dr. Marbuse. The rest of his credits include two more Richard Casey films (including the sequel) and a small part in Cheers. In the tradition of Boris Korloff’s monster, our masked killer and key flimsy plot-point is credited only as Ronald Reagan. Legend states, this was due to multiple cast members dawning the Nixon mask according to availability and practicality. That's fine; I just hope they know the difference between their creepy old politicians.
Horror House on Highway Five is the imported, run of the mill b-movie slasher cliche from a gonzo dimension running parallel to our own. Somebody had a plan for it all, born from perverted imagination and well-used genre tropes, but no sense can be wrestled from the awkward, lovable final product. I hate saying things like this, but to fully appreciate the film, it must be experienced. Even then, I can't assume you’ll find the joy inside that brings me back for repeat viewings. That's the thing about "bad movies"--it's a broad category, and we all have a different palette for trash. My best advice is just to try everything. Like food, you never know what you might dig. Also like cuisine, if the movie sucks, give it another chance sometime down the road, when you're in a different place, or drunk.
1h 27min | 1985
Director: Richard Casey
Writer: Richard Casey 
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