“It all started exactly thirteen years ago, when Mary Graves’ older sister was murdered on Halloween prom night by a power-mowing maniac. Poor Mary – since then she has experienced horror, sexual frustration, even psychoanalysis, but she still sees little lawnmowers everywhere. But tonight will be different. Tonight, at the new Halloween Prom, all the questions of the past thirteen years will be answered as the pumpkin headed killer has returned. But hot on their trail is an obsessed cop who won’t allow history to repeat itself.” (courtesy Wikipedia)
Despite the fact that the arrival of talking pictures in the thirties allowed for more sophisticated theatrical comedies to be developed for the screen, the taste for quick belly laughs persisted. As the movies themselves grew older, so there were increasing opportunities for films that pastiched film traditions. The self-referential tradition pretty much started with the truly weird Hellzapoppin’! (1941) based on a stage revue, but which included a number of strangely modern jokes about the film industry. The series of musical comedies starting with Road To Singapore (1940) starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby frequently poked fun at the artifice of cinema with comments and asides directed at the audience, breaking the theatrical ‘Fourth Wall’, the barrier between the audience and the illusion of a separate world on stage.
This continued in It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), one of the longest comedy films ever made, certainly the most star-studded. But these sorts of films were few and far between. Three major successes ushered the way for a cascade of films in which traditional genres could be parodied: Blazing Saddles (1974) was a superb comic assault on the conventions and cliches of the then-dying western; Monty Python & The Holy Grail (1974) used the myth of King Arthur to parody epic costume dramas and Ingmar Bergman films; and Airplane! also known as Flying High! (1980) poked fun of the previous decade’s catalogue of disaster films, particularly the Airport (1970) franchise. Written and directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker, Airplane! kickstarted a comedy sub-genre that continues to dominate every holiday season, not least being the Scary Movie (2000) franchise. It also inspired a number of similar comedies during the early eighties, one of the best being the stalk-and-slash fun of Wacko (1982).
Wacko was directed by B-grade horror movie producer Greydon Clark, responsible for such anti-classics as Satan’s Cheerleaders (1977), The Return (1980) and Without Warning (1980), so he should be familiar with the subject matter. Scripting duties fell to several young writers destined for future glory: Dana Olsen would go on to write The ‘Burbs (1989), George Of The Jungle (1997) and Inspector Gadget (1999); and Jim Kouf and David Greenwalt went on to write some of your favourite television shows, from The X-Files and Buffy The Vampire Slayer to Eureka and Grimm. The cast of Wacko reflects the cast of Airplane! with a number of character actors known for their serious roles – Joe Don Baker, Stella Stevens, George Kennedy, Charles Napier – alongside some exciting new talent – Julia Duffy, Elizabeth Daily, Andrew Dice Clay, Scott McGinnis.
Thirteen years ago young Mary Graves (Julia Duffy) witnessed her own sister Pam (Claudia Lonow) being slashed to death by the Pumpkin-Headed Halloween Lawnmower Killer, a traumatic mental experience which, in her own words, is bound to screw her up for the rest of her life. Today Mary is getting ready to go to the high school prom with her boyfriend Norman Bates (Scott McGinnis) and his constant companion, a mummified ventriloquist doll named ‘mother’. That very same morning however, the radio announces that a murderous lunatic has escaped from the nearby mental asylum, and Mary receives a mysterious note: “It’s Halloween, it’s prom night, there’s a psycho loose, so don’t open the door, don’t answer the phone, don’t look in the attic, don’t go to the bathroom, don’t go into the ocean, and don’t go into space because no one can hear you scream! Signed, a friend.” With a Halloween Pumpkin on their head, the infamous killer could be just about anybody, like Mary’s father Doctor Doctor Graves (George Kennedy) who’s always mowing the lawn while trying to catch a glimpse of his own daughter’s naked body, or her boyfriend Norman who, when sexually aroused, makes noises like a revving lawnmower.
At Hitchcock High School we meet other potential suspects such as the sleazy school janitor Geek…I mean, Zeke (Anthony James), the mad science teacher Doctor Moreau (Victor Brandt) and vice principal in charge of vice Harry Palms (Jeff Altman). We also encounter potential victims, students like the John Travolta-like sexist sweat-hog Tony ‘The Schlong’ Schlongini (Andrew Dice Clay) who comes with his own theme music (“Everyone’s talking’ about him, people that know him just love him, so if you’re feeling down, or if you’re feelin’ blue, this dude will make you feel super-cool!”) and the incredibly sexy-yet-dateless Bambi (Elizabeth Daily). Fortunately for Mary, former police detective – and current slob who lives on nothing but twinkies and coffee – Dick Harbinger (Joe Don Baker) has been obsessed with the unsolved case of the Pumpkin-Headed Halloween Lawnmower Killer for the last thirteen years and he also intends to be at the prom on the lookout for anyone acting suspicious: “It’s the 13th anniversary of the lawnmower killings! It’s October 31st! 31 backwards is 13! It’s Friday, it’s Halloween, it’s prom night, there’s a crazy loose, and I’m out of coffee!”
Wacko (1982) is arguably the best of the four slasher parodies released about the same time – Student Bodies (1981), Pandemonium (1982), National Lampoon’s Class Reunion (1982) – long before the eighties high school horror genre had reached its peak. The primary problem with these films is that they haven’t aged very well. For every good gag or ingenious element, there are a dozen or so painfully misplaced pathetic jokes, some so bad that one actually feels embarrassed for the actors. There are moments when Wacko seems to have no direction whatsoever, and it becomes apparent that filmmaker Clark has no idea where to go either. Wacko is dated, crass and cruel but it is also a remarkable little comedy, quite quotable with a peculiar ensemble cast and a handful of strangely perplexing sequences. Unlike the Scary Movie franchise, Wacko tends to avoid toilet humour (although there’s plenty there) and concentrates on referencing cult films from Alfred Hitchcock, John Carpenter, Brian De Palma and others.
Joe Don Baker is simply phenomenal and redefines the stereotypical determined disheveled detective, obvious inspiration for Tom Atkins in Night Of The Creeps (1986), Rutger Hauer in Split Second (1992), Paul Chubb in The Roly Poly Man (1994) and many others. Baker’s mannerisms, insanity and fresh take on the character is laugh-out-loud funny. Hollywood veteran George Kennedy has appeared in a lot of inferior films, but I never thought I’d see him revel in the role of a perverted father lusting after his own daughter. As dictated by Hollywood tradition, assorted 25+ year-olds were cast as the high school’s teenage students. The delightful Julia Duffy went on to win Emmy awards for her performance in the situation comedy Newhart, but not before appearing as precious Princess Ariel in the epic fantasy parody (a rare animal back then) Wizards & Warriors television series. The equally delightful Elizabeth Daily may not look immediately familiar, but you should know her distinctive childlike voice – as E.G. Daily she provided the voices of Tommy Pickles in Rugrats, Buttercup in The Powerpuff Girls, Babe in Pig In The City (1998) and a dozen other famous animated characters. In his feature film debut Andrew Dice Clay establishes his life-long chauvinistic stage persona as the high school’s local jock.
Wacko is well-paced, absurd and confusing, but it’s no classic by any stretch of the imagination. A proudly unsophisticated comedy with the dual charm of complete conviction in its silliness, and not pretending to be anything more than 84 minutes of fun. Released on VHS in the eighties by Vestron Video, Wacko has not (at this writing) been officially released on DVD yet, which is unfortunate as it has all the potential to become a minor cult favourite. Like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) or Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), Wacko should really be viewed with an audience to be enjoyed at all – college campuses, midnight screenings or with friends and a few drinks. The humour is sharp, the dialogue is politically incorrect and, if released today, would definitely attract a rating stronger than the ‘PG’ it was originally assigned. And it’s with that thought in mind that I’ll quickly ask you to please join me again next week when I shall discuss another dubious classic for Horror News. Until then, pleasant dreams and remember, as my old friend Bela Lugosi would say, “Bevare! Bevare of the big green dragon that sits on your doorstep…” And the gifts it leaves on your lawn. Toodles!