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New Year's Evil
(1980)

Director: Emmett Alston
Cast:
Roz Kelly, Kip Niven, Chris Wallace


As you have probably guessed by now, the way that movies give me the most enjoyment is by actually watching them. That's what movies were made for in the first place, to be seen by the mass public. But while I try to watch a movie most of the time when I feel the subject of movies is of great interest to me at the time, occasionally I will do something else. Though that "something else" happens to be related to the subject of movies. Certainly, as I have mentioned many times before on this web site, I like to read about movies - how they were made, for example. But I also like on occasion to just think about why some things are so in the movie genre. One thing I like to think about are movie genres that are dead or essentially dead. Quite often I like to wonder why public taste turned from liking a certain movie genre to now not caring all that much about it. The silent movie genre is one early example, and one that doesn't take much thought to conclude why it died out. Having sound gives movies a lot more possibilities, and once audiences got a taste of that, they quickly felt that silent movies were primitive storytellers by comparison. Then there was the western genre. It seems curious at first that a genre that was wildly popular for many decades started to die out as the 1970s came around, and within a few years was pretty much dead. After a lot of thought, I concluded that not only had the past decades exhausted pretty much any spin on the western genre, but new and exciting genres (like cop movies) had sprung up to interest audiences in them.

Then there is the slasher genre that for a brief time in the 1980s was very popular. Like with silent movies, it doesn't take too much examination of the genre to discover why it essentially died out, though of course for a reason much different than silent movies. The hard truth was that most slashers were not only not very good, they quite often repeated the same kind of characters and situations over and over. But while slasher movies may be guilty of those particular flaws, a closer look at the genre does uncover some interesting observations, particularly regarding those repeated elements. When it came to settings, there were a particular few that were very popular with filmmakers. A lot of slasher movies were set on campuses, like Night School, Final Exam, and Slaughter High. A lot of other slasher movies were set in the outdoors, like The Forest, The Prey, and Madman. But possibly the most well known setting for slasher movies back in the golden age of the genre were slasher movies that were set during special calendar dates. I'm talking about movies like My Bloody Valentine, April Fool's Day, Mother's Day, Prom Night, Graduation Day, Silent Night Deadly Night... I could go on and on for quite some time. The question comes up as to why so many slasher movies were set during special calendar dates, and I think the answer to that is easy. First, in 1978 came the slasher movie Halloween, which made a serious amount of money. Then two years later came the slasher movie Friday The 13th, which also made a great splash at the box office. The success of two special calendar date slasher movies made fairly close to each other seemed to suggest to filmmakers that even more money could be made by making more such movies.

But I think there are other reasons why slasher movies set on special calendar dates were so popular. If you think about it, most holidays and other special times on the calendar are times when people are supposed to have fun. So filmmakers have probably concluded that introducing New Year's Evilhorror to people having fun on holidays might make the horror seem more terrifying than if the horror was introduced on an ordinary day. While I am sure that this theory of mine is true to a degree, let's face it - most slasher movie makers were probably trying to ape Halloween and Friday The 13th. When I got my hands on a copy of New Year's Evil, I was sure that its makers had that intention most of all in their minds. But what interested me about it was that it was not only one of the first slashers to ape those two aforementioned famous slasher movies, but it was also one of the first efforts made by producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus after purchasing Cannon Films the previous year. Did it live up to its interesting pedigree? Well, first the plot. In Los Angeles during New Year's Eve, aging disc jockey Diane (Kelly, The Owl And The Pussycat) is the host of a showcase of various new wave musical acts as part of a televised celebration of the coming new year. She no doubt feels the pressure of trying to grab an audience when her youth is long behind her, but she also has the problem of dealing with her neglected adult son Derek (Grant Cramer, Killer Klowns From Outer Space). However, she soon has another problem on her hands. A mysterious man (Niven, Damnation Alley) has murder on his mind, and when it reaches midnight in the eastern time zone, he not only commits murder, but telephones Diane afterwards during her show to brag about it. And the killer isn't content to stick with one murder - as midnight reaches the other time zones in America, he does the same thing again. Naturally, Diane is seriously creeped out, especially because the killer makes it pretty clear in his phone calls that when midnight reaches the west coast, Diane will be his last victim.

If you haven't recently seen any slashers from the 1980s, and/or you are familiar with the writings of movie critics of the era covering slasher movies (like Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert), it's quite possible that your perspective of 1980s slashers is that they pile on the horror and gore with the subtility of a fire hose turned on full blast. But the truth is that many 1980s slashers seen today more than 30 years later come across tamer than you might think. This is certainly true for New Year's Evil. First, there is the level of blood and gore in the movie. There are much fewer scenes of this gooshy stuff being displayed than you might think. And what there is could almost certainly be shown on prime time television unedited more than 40 years later. In fact, the movie would probably get a PG-13 rating today if it weren't for a little language and some fleeting nudity. With that fact in mind, you've probably concluded that the stalk-and-slash sequences don't pack all that much punch, and you would be correct. Director Emmett Alston (Demonwarp) more often than not seems intent on not staging these sequences to the maximum effect. Some of the murders happen off-screen or out of camera range. At other times, the murders are beforehand set up in a way that you know exactly how the person will be killed, so there is absolutely no surprise when it actually happens in front of your eyes. Oddly, the only real creepy stalking sequence happens when the intended victim doesn't end up being killed. Instead, we get a sequence showing the panic and pleading of a woman in the back seat of the killer's car. She eventually escapes, but she does manage to leave more of a lasting (and uneasy) impression than the characters who were actually (and lamely) killed.

But the (unbloody) meat of New Year's Evil - it's intent to creep out and thrill its audience - is not just unsuccessful due to the lame ways the stalk-and-slash scenes have been set up. The failure can also be blamed on the portrayal of the character of the killer. There is initially some promise that this particular slasher will be more interesting than most other slasher characters of this period, given that we see his face right from the start, as well as that he has a substantial amount of dialogue. But all the same, the character isn't all that scary. In fact, he seems almost comical at times. There are scenes where he speaks with a distorted voice ("Call me EEEVIL!") that are meant to be creepy, but instead simply sound goofy. He is more menacing when he speaks normally, but not that much; actor Niven does not put any edge into his performance as he sets up his kills, so we in the audience are not uneasy in the slightest seeing this guy. And while this character eventually gets a monologue explaining why he's doing what he's doing, it's far from satisfying or substantial; you'll have a lot of questions that are simply not answered. He remains a mystery, and not in a chilly way like Michael Myers in Halloween. As it turns out, none of the other lead characters in New Year's Evil are all that interesting or fleshed-out. The characters of Diane and Derek have very little backgrounds, so we can't really see what is pushing them in positive or negative ways. It doesn't help that later in the movie, they are pushed to the backburner for long periods of time in favor of showing the killer, so we don't get that many opportunities that show them feeling a great threat is coming their way.

The only character in the movie that really makes an impression is a character played by Louisa Moritz (Hot Chili). Playing a ditzy woman that the killer picks up, Moritz shows some effective comic spark, and as the killer realizes he is running behind schedule while trying to find time to kill her, the sequence becomes both amusing and tense. Other than this scene and the aforementioned near-kill scene, Alston can't seem to do much to liven up New Year's Evil. The script (which Alston is given story credit to) has additional weakness, one of them being that like many other slashers, there isn't a heck of a lot of story here. But instead of entertaining us with one kill after another, Alston instead puts a lot of focus on the new wave musical acts that Diane is hosting. And while I love 1980s music, even I have to admit that almost all of the music in this movie simply isn't all that good, though the title track does stand out from the pack. As for Alston's direction of the other aspects of the movie, it's kind of a mixed bag. Despite the low budget imposed on him by producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the movie's lighting and cinematography do look pretty professional and glossy. The low budget does show occasionally, such as with the generally tight feel of the enterprise instead of a "wide" feeling, but it's never too distracting. However, viewers will feel that the movie is missing "snap" throughout, not just with the murder sequences. Instead of grabbing us and putting a bloody knife to our throats, the movie pretty much just plods along at a much slower pace than we would like. Although I was never bored at any period, at the same time I wanted a lot more than what I was getting. The highest I can say about this movie is that it's somewhat better than most other slashers of this period... but as you no doubt know, most slashers of this period were really bad stuff. Proceed with caution.

(Posted November 30, 2020)

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See also: Don't Open Till Christmas, Elves, To All A Good Night

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