Sunday, October 14, 2018

Epitaph (1987)

aka Mommy’s Epitaph

The Forrest family has had to move house repeatedly, their semi-nomadic lifestyle pissing off teenage daughter Amy (Natasha Pavlova) in particular. But then, this is the sort of thing you have to cope with when you’re the daughter of Martha (Delores Nascar), serial killer of men when she doesn’t manage to seduce. The whole family knows about mommy’s little problem but they all agree they do not want to see dear mother locked up somewhere, so Dad Forrest (Jimmy Williams) gets rid of the bodies while the rest pretends everything is okay. This way, Martha’s at least having sex with Forrest once in a while, as the married couple’s way of saying thank you.

However, something has to give eventually. When Martha’s already killing some poor painter before they have even properly moved into their newest home, Daddy decides to go to a psychiatrist who is supposed to take a look at his murderous lunatic of a wife. Of course, Martha would never go to a shrink herself, so he manages to convince the woman to come to the house undercover as a neighbour and try to win Martha’s trust.

As bad as this plan is, things become even more awkward when the painter turns out to be buried with quite a few knife wounds but most certainly not dead. Instead of going to the police, he instead tries to kill Amy (no idea why) and then murders Forrest with the trusty family pickaxe before Martha can kill him a second time, leaving her the only grown-up in the house. Add to this little problem that Amy is getting her first boyfriend, something the perhaps mildly misandrist Martha of course mightily disapproves of, and further violence is guaranteed.

Usually, when the tired cult film viewer sees the name of Joseph Merhi (here, as ever, paired with his eternal partner Richard Pepin who this time around co-produces, edits and shoots), he can expect to encounter a sometimes shoddy, but usually highly entertaining action film shot on the cheap. Epitaph, one of the man’s earliest films, is obviously a horror movie, but it is ridiculously entertaining, at least for viewers who can cope with cheap looking films that barely have a plot and feature highly dubious acting.

Or really, viewers like me for whom many of the film’s flaws are the actual fun. For example, nobody would ever confuse Delores Nascar’s performance with any portrayal of an actual human being, mentally ill or not, but as a combination of shrillness and grimacing buried under a ton of make-up frightening even for the 80s, she is an absolute winner, stealing hearts and carving up grandmas with the best of them.

I draw particular joy out of the lack of self-consciousness the film shows. As is so often the case, the film takes clearly place on a different planet Earth than the one we know. It’s a place where nobody ever asks after the professional painter who goes missing, where psychiatrists go undercover as fake neighbours and also aren’t missed after they encounter the deadly combination of a metal bucket, a rat, and a blow torch (insert absurd little gore effect here), where a family is bitching about their mother’s murderous way but never tries to get help going beyond a secret agent psychiatrist. It’s Direct to Video Earth at its finest, but Merhi and co treat this nonsense with conviction, as if what they are portraying weren’t goofy nonsense but serious, dark, horrifying drama. You also gotta love this thing’s enthusiasm for little dumb details, like the bloody handprints on the wall of the never finished room the painter had started on nobody ever bothers to paint over, or the fact that Amy’s school in most outside shots clearly is no such thing as a school but at least features what looks like the same cat sneaking through the background of more than one scene.

There is, not surprisingly, a grubby quality to the filmmaking. Merhi and Pepin have clearly started to develop a sense of what they are doing when shooting on the cheap, but there are still moments when the frame becomes awkwardly cramped or when locations are very obviously not what they are supposed to be. If one is of the kind of mind for this sort of thing, one can read the whole affair and the style it was made in as an attack on the idea of squeaky clean suburban living, though I’d be very surprised if anyone involved in the making of this movie did it for more than making some bucks off a cheap little horror movie. I’m not complaining, mind you, for I enjoyed my time with Epitaph quite a bit.

If you’re like me, you are now hoping for a Lifetime Channel remake of the film. It would absolutely fit into the tone of contemporary Lifetime, given the absurdity of its plot and its focus on the domestic. At least if you crank up the winking and cast Martha with Eric Roberts.

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