Spine (1986)

When the wee pups of the video fringe first watched Spine during its initial release 33 years ago, it was, as was the case with most of the Big Box VHS/SOV horror flicks of the ‘80s, acquired via mail order from an ad in the back of a monster or underground film magazine. Just one look at that very heavy metal, bloody-carved knife font: you had to have it. Spine was supposedly so “nasty” that video stores wouldn’t carry it in their horror section. The fact that these stores were renting out copies of the infamous SOV blockbuster-nasty, Blood Cult (1985), and not Spine — well, telling someone they can’t have it only makes them want it more.

The “Big Box” we love.

On the rare occasion when a store did carry Spine, it was cataloged in a three-ring binder on the counter that you were not even allowed to browse through, with the VHS tucked away behind the green curtain in the “21 and over only” porn section. When the more adventurous (well, clueless) store operators did carry Spine on the main floor in the horror section — alongside the oeuvres of Argento, Bava, Carpenter, Craven, Fulci, and Lenzi — the word-of-mouth marketing kicked in and Spine became a top-rental.

Yeah, those marketing gurus at Xeon, Ltd. knew how to sell a film on the video fringe.

We’ve read the online reviews advising us that Spine is woefully inept and downright boring in parts, with no gratuitous nudity and no on-screen kills. Every time something good is about to happen, the scene cuts away or fades to black (and has way too many clunky fade-edits). We’ve seen more graphic sex and eroticism in Martin Scorcese’s The Wolf of Wall Street and more gratuitous nudity and violence in ’70s Italian and Spanish Gialli. When the actors aren’t overacting, they’re underacting. When actors aren’t staring into the camera, they’re visibly reading their lines from papers on a desk. In an Ed Wood-Tommy Wiseau casting snafu: a bearded actor cast as one of the detectives — who quit in mid-production — is replaced, without explanation, by one of the film’s crewmembers — because he had a similar beard/build, as if no one would notice.

Yes, if Tommy Wiseau wrote a slasher flick, it would be Spine: Do you remember the scene in The Room when we learned Lisa’s (superfluous) mother was “dying from breast cancer” — then it was never mentioned again? Spine has a lot of those “is plot twist” moments. Oh, and most importantly: there are no spine removals.

“Uh, so why would anyone want to see a film that’s that awful?” you ask.

Well, for those wee horror and heavy-metal lovin’ pups of the under-21 variety surfing the ‘80s video fringes, Spine, unlike the films it attempted to mimic, provided those teen renters with their first exposure to . . . a porn movie — and they were masturbating to the film’s extended bondage scenes. Now that sounds crass, but it’s the truth. While masquerading as a slasher flick, Spine is really an adult erotic film — and chickens are choked in the process.

Today, those extended bondage scenes seem mild in a post-James Wan and Eli Roth torture-porn world, but in 1986, for those hormone-infused teen minds that never experienced a porn film: Spine was a sensory overload. Sure, those teens experienced light “damsel in distress” moments on the police procedural TV dramas of their youth — everything from Dragnet to Charlie’s Angels — but nothing like Spine’s “X-Rated” scenes.

As I write this review three decades after its release, we horror geeks are still coveting, talking about, and purchasing copies of Spine. Collectors are shelling out $200 to $400 for the original VHS — and willing to plop down $150 just for the box. The official 2015 DVD reissue by Massacre Video sits on the shelves of your local Best Buy, Barnes and Noble, and Walmart. It’s even available on Amazon and eBay with your PayPal account.

Oh, how the times have changed.

The VHS slip case we remember.

Not bad for a week’s worth of work in the summer of 1984 in Los Angeles — shot on the fly without permits via broadcast-news ENG cameras and 3/4-inch U-Matic videotape using Ikegami cameras on a $20,000 budget*. It’s that S-VHS and U-Matic recording format that lends to the fuzzy, color hazing of the film that leaves it with an almost documentary-like pale. The film came together with financing from porn purveyors 4-Play Video, Inc., and producers Xeon, Ltd. created the SS “Sterling Silver” Video imprint for the sole purpose of distributing Spine without the nasty porn aftertaste. Released with a 70-minute running time, Spine was marketed as a 90-minute feature film, so as to get it out of the back room and into the horror section shelves of the main floor. Plans for Xeon and SS to produce and distribute another horror-porn film never materialized. (*One of the first motion pictures shot electronically-on-videotape, using Norelco PCP-70 portable plumbicon NTSC cameras and portable Ampex VR-3000 2″ VTRs, was the 1973 Glenn Ford-starring western Santee produced by Crown International Pictures; unlike its ’80s SOV offspring: it was transferred to film stock for theatrical release.)

Spine required a set of reshoots when co-director/producer Justin Simonds realized the final edit clocked in at 45 minutes. The film needed more material: so he wrote and shot an expanded detective storyline that was interposed into the existing slasher footage shot by John Howard with actor R. Eric Huxley. Most of the film was shot at a commercial-office complex (doubling as a “medical center”) owned by the same businessman who loaned out his spacious house where the film comes to its harrowing conclusion. The “police station” is actually a computer company where Simonds worked his day job.

When you factor in its production cost-to-box office ratios, Spine, more than likely, has a profit margin percentage analogous to John Carpenter’s Halloween and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. In an adult film industry perspective: the ‘70s “Golden Age of Porn” blockbuster-classics Behind the Green Door, Deep Throat, and The Devil in Miss Jones. Spine is, simply put, The Room of ‘80s SOV horror (we go deeper in the genre with our joint review of The Last Victim/Forced Entry). No one is going to be talking about the highbrow, 2019 Oscar winners Green Book and Roma thirty years from now and clamoring for extras-packed DVD reissues on either.

While it was shot-on and edited-on 3/4-inch video like its fellow, lo-res audio-buzzing, Big Box/SOV horror brethren Boarding House (1982), Sledgehammer (1983), Truth or Dare (1986), 555 (1988), Things (1989), and Gorgasm (1990) — Spine is a semi-pro production. It’s obvious that co-directors/writers/producers John Howard and Justin Simonds knew what they’re were doing and, in spite of the budget and time constraints, did their best to emulate John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980). If the duo had, say, a month-long shooting schedule and a $100,000 budget that allowed them to hire a skilled, student screenwriter from UCLA looking for a break, along with studied, non-porn actors to flesh out their concept of grafting Giallo-inspired plotting into a porn production, it could have, at the very least, elevated Spine to the commercialized sleaziness of The Toolbox Murders (1978) or Pete Walker’s even sleazier The Confessional (1976) and Charles Kaufman’s sick-fest, Mother’s Day (1980). A nudity-loving Paul Naschy-directed version of Spine would have become a Spanish Giallo classic. Why 16mm home-grown filmmaker Andy Milligan failed to make the adult film-to-slasher-hybrid transition — considering his own films, Seeds (1968), which, once after-the-fact sex scenes were edited-in, became the “adult film” Seeds of Sin, and Fleshpot on 42nd Street (1972) starred porn actors Laura Cannon and Harry Reems (both from the aforementioned-linked Forced Entry) and played to the adult grindhouse crowd, is anyone’s guess.

John Howard and Justin Simonds each have long resumes in the adult film industry, producing a successful series of 30 to 70-minute “specialty videos” (i.e. bondage films) for the industry-respected California Star Productions (aka CalStar). As is the case with adult films, their productions didn’t waste time with plot contrivances and concentrated on women being tied up — the more ropes and knots, the better. While their films showed lots of skin, sometimes with the occasional, mild sexual situations, their main objective was to expand upon those very same “damsel in distress” bondage scenes seen on police procedural TV dramas — without any yammering cops or whiny villains getting in the way of the knots and ropes.

According to reviews published at the time of its 1986 release, critics logically — because of the killer’s similar obsession with nurses — believed Spine was inspired by Richard Speck’s July 1966 Chicago murders of eight student nurses. The irony of that Richard Speck analogy is that Speck’s murder spree served as the inspiration behind Charles Bronson’s entry in the ‘80s stalker-slasher blood pool, 10 to Midnight (1983) — which isn’t far off the mark on what Spine failed to accomplish with its “detective vs. serial killer” plot. (Cobra and D-Tox are Sly Stallone’s two solid examples of the genre.)

Go retro!

Courtesy of a Massacre Video interview with Justin Simonds, it turns out that it was Brian De Palma’s Dario Argento homage, Dressed to Kill (1980) — and not Richard Speck’s exploits — that led to John Howard’s idea for Spine. Unfortunately, that slasher-porn concept was compromised at the last minute by the film’s two lead actresses urging the directors to cut-out the nudity and create a more commercially-accessible slasher film. It’s a decision Simonds now regrets: the gratuitous nudity (and sex) would have served as an effective counterbalance against the film’s technical and creative shortcomings.

While the script is an arduous journey through an exposition-burdened hell that grossly violates the “show, don’t tell” edict of screenwriting, along with “plot twists” to nowhere that don’t even come close to the beloved red-herring modus operandi typical of a Giallo, still, there’s actually a very Giallo-sleazy tale lost amid the film’s low-res hums.

Eric Huxley’s creepy and seriously screwed-up mama’s boy — a Norman Bates-styled may-have-had-a-sexual-relationship-with-mama fey who laments on how much he enjoyed “rubbing momma’s back and feet” — successfully carries the film as the hulking, perpetually aviator-shaded, cowboy boots and pink western shirt-clad psycho, Lawrence Aston. (For inside Hux’s chest beats a Tommy Wiseau-committed-to-the-role heart.)

As a successful entrepreneur who runs his family’s business (expositional cop babble), Larry leads a double life terrorizing the nurses of Los Angeles. His modus operandi: First, he binds them ass-up over the backs of chairs and rapes them (camera-angled out of view and not as graphically portrayed as you’d expect; again, you’ve seen worse in the critically-acclaimed, mainstream-porn that is The Wolf of Wall Street). Then he hogties them and, as they struggle, the rope from their feet to their neck tightens and strangles them — in a form of “self punishment” for “hurting mama” (on-camera). Then, after administering a flurry of stabs wounds (camera-angled out of view/cuts away), Larry beheads them, carves out their spines, and with their blood, scrawls “Linda” on the wall (all off-camera exposition via cop talk). And, we’re just sleazy-guessing: Larry-boy goes home, puts on his dear, dead momma’s dresses and masturbates. And probably plays with decapitated Donald Duck heads, like in a Fulci movie. And, like in an Argento movie, obsesses over crystal bird feathers, nine-tailed cats, and grey velvet-fluttering flies.

So, when nurse Carrie Lonigan (Janus Blythe), whose friend becomes Aston’s sixth victim, interrupts the killing of nurse number seven (another one of Carrie’s friends; it seems all of the victims work at the same medical office?), Carrie becomes the next “Linda” to be relieved of her spinal cord. (And why did Larry pick Carrie’s two friends and what’s Carrie’s connection to the mayhem? Why did Larry pick that medical office? Was his mama treated there? Was Linda employed there? It’s never explained.) That sets up the film’s extended bondage scene third act (that everyone rented for) where Larry-boy ties up and tortures Carrie, along with her recently Kansas City-transplanted friend, Leah Petralla (Lise Romanoff).

Although the execution is clumsy, the Howard-Simonds collective does a commendable job in taking the time to develop Carrie and Leah as real people that viewers can care about: Leah “got into trouble” in Kansas City and had to runaway to Los Angeles; Carrie previously visited Kansas City and met Leah through a mutual acquaintance; Carrie owns a van because she loves swap meets and camping; she house sits a friend’s mansion while they’re vacationing in Europe. Even the bumbling cops are developed as ordinary average guys with everyday problems: dealing with computer issues, job pressures and sports betting pools, bitching about crappy coffee and putting the moves on the hot police dispatcher, and so on. Again, a valiant effort was made to develop the characters and story beyond porn norms.

“Okay, so what’s the deal with Linda and her spine?”

It turns out that poor, lonely Larry developed a crush on his sick momma’s healthcare nurse — Linda. When he made a clumsy, romantic overture (in his mind; he really tried to rape her) she gouged-out his eye with a pair of scissors (we see it for a second; no great shocks). Then, while he’s chilling out in the nuthouse, momma took a tumble down the stairs in her wheelchair — and broke her spine in three places. Now little Larry is convinced that Linda — in an act of revenge to take away his momma from him, forever — “pushed momma down the stairs.” (Again, all of these plot-twisty events are off-camera exposition. And we never meet the “real” Linda, either. And why not stab “Linda” symbolically, three times, say in both eyes and the heart? Hey, don’t over think the plot, my friend!)

Of course, no Italian Giallo-homage is complete without some fucked-up dream within a dream plot twist — complete with Leah discovering she has “psychic abilities” linked to the killer, as all Gialli damsels do. So, Carrie and Leah still have their spines and . . . no, wait! Larry is hiding in the shadows of the garage and Carrie’s going to take out the trash and close the mysteriously opened garage door . . . again. “Carrie, don’t go in the garage, he’s in there!” screams a bug-eyed Leah.

So goes the tale of “The Linda Murders” plaguing Los Angeles during those first two, carefree weeks of Larry-boy’s release from the nuthouse, when he killed nine nurses. Or was it seven nurses? No, five? Argh! Leah’s confounded deus ex machina psychic-dreaming hysteria screwed up the kill count.

While Janus Blythe has done better work, she certainly deserved better than having to take a role in an SOV horror flick — financed by a porn studio, no less — to pay the rent. (Several years ago, a fellow con-freak told me Janus was “in the running” for the Janet-role on ABC-TV’s Three’s Company and, she “lost out” on the part of Lynn Starling in Rocktober Blood? I’ve been unable to confirm those “facts.”) In addition, Lise Romanoff, in her only acting role, does a pretty decent job as well. It would have been nice to see her develop as an actress.

The same can’t be said for the rest of the cast, especially the perpetually changing baseball cap-clad (is it a Tom Selleck-Magnum in-joke?) lead detective on the case, Leo Meadows (Antoine Herzog, the acting alias of director John Howard who, in a pretty decent bit of comedic writing, is constantly mistaken as “Leo Fields” by Blythe’s character). Fairing worse, god bless him, is Simonds’s non-acting father, James, as the precinct’s commanding officer. Considering their castings were the result of the two “professional” actors cast in the rolls dropping out at the last minute, you’re willing to cut them both some slack. Seriously, how many dads do you know — with no acting experience — who would bail out his son’s film by taking a role? And Howard, he was Wiseau-committed: come hell or high water, Spine was going to get made. And, for better or worse, he got his film made. And that’s awesome.

“So, where’s the cast and crew of Spine now?”

Janus Blythe is always etched in our ‘70s drive-In and ‘80s VHS hearts, courtesy of her breakout role as the tough-as-nails Ruby in Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, along with her turns in Stu Segall’s exploiters C.B Hustlers and Drive-In Massacre, Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive, Bob Kelljan’s Black Oak Conspiracy, William Sach’s The Incredible Melting Man, and The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 (just released by Arrow Video and newly reviewed on B&S Movies!). Before retiring from the business, Janus kicked some serious, gun-slinging ass alongside Gil “Buck Rogers” Gerard, Charles Napier, and Dan Haggerty in her final film: the not-so-awful 1991 direct-to-video Rambo knock-off, Soldier’s Fortune (trailer). Yeah, we dig you, Janus!

Also appearing in a small role as one of Spine’s precinct’s detectives (acting under the Ray Hicks nom de plume) is Roger Watkins. In 1973, at 24 years old, with $3,000 bucks in his pocket and a 16-millimeter camera, he produced, wrote, directed, and starred in the well-regarded grindhouse classic — now a highly-coveted VHS — Last House on a Dead End Street (it has an extensive Wikipage). Unable to obtain a foothold in mainstream films, Watkins forged a successful career in the adult film industry — he produced several films for CalStar directed by John Howard — up until his death in March 2007. (Our “spines” are tingling in anticipation as Joe Rubin and the Vinegar Syndrome crew currently works on Last House’s DVD restoration.)

The most successful person to rise from the ranks of the SOV horror ‘80s is Lise Romanoff. After becoming a successful special effects artist (Night of the Creeps is one of her many credits; it’s reviewed, again, on B&S Movies! Yes, we love it that much!), she became a mainstream producer and distributor, eventually incorporating and becoming the CEO of Vision Films. In addition to serving on the board of the IFTA (Independent Film and Television Alliance), she’s a noted industry authority on film copyright and trade laws.

Don Chilcott, the musician responsible for Spine’s scuzzy, slasher-appropriate synth-soundtrack, also scored the SOV horror romp Bits and Pieces (1985). Don never stopped rocking: he became a successful studio musician and a respected guitarist and lead vocalist for several California-based blues bands. An age-restricted VHS rip of Bits and Pieces is available on You Tube and you can learn more about the film on Horror News.

John Howard (Letterboxd) — with R. Eric Huxley as his go-to leading man — stuck with the vision he set forth in Spine, injecting extended bondage scenes into erotic adult films featuring fleshed-out characters and extended out-of-the-norm-for-porn plots. His films starred our beloved exploitation scream queens from the USA Network cable-TV ‘80s: Linnea Quigley (aka Jessie Dalton) and Michelle Bauer in Avenged (with Crystal Breeze of Rollerblade, newly reviewed on B&S Movies!), Scorpion (female agent/spy action; no, not the Tony Tulleners one), Stalked (white slavery adventures), and Flash! (a plucky investigative reporter-photographer runs afoul of drug dealers). So, if you want to see more of John Howard and R. Eric Huxley’s joint-oeuvre, it may be worth it to seek out those films.

Spine was reissued as a DVD-R rip on the Substance grey-market imprint (2005) and Vultra Video issued a VHS repack in a retro-clamshell case (2012). Alongside Justin Simonds, R. Eric Huxley contributes to Massacre’s audio commentary track and gives an on-screen interview that gets into the nuts and bolts regarding the hardships of low-budget filmmaking — conducted by Massacre Video’s Louis C. Justin and Vinegar Syndrome’s Joe Rubin. In addition to a generous stills gallery, Massacre’s official 2015 DVD reissue (Region: 0 NTSC) comes with high-quality, reversible cover-art that replicates the original’s big box artwork. You can purchase Spine direct from Massacre Video or through Cinema Wasteland and Amazon. There’s an age-restricted VHS rip of Spine to enjoy on You Tube. Will there ever be a remake proper of Spine? As B&S Movies recently points out in “Exploring: Slasher Remakes,” the scuz-classics The Toolbox Murders and Mother’s Day were remade — so why not Spine (with Sly Stallone hunting down a Linda-hating “Spine Killer,” perhaps?).

Nope. Not John Howard’s fault.

Contrary to the web-chatter/caveat emptor John Howard sidebar: The Scorpion (1986) reissued on the Explosive Cinema 12-film pack by Mill Creek (Amazon, Walmart) — starring karate champ Tony Tulleners, the one guy the “invincible” Chuck Norris could never beat — is not the same film as the “specialty video” Scorpion (1986) shot by John and starring Linnea Quigley, noted above. You can watch the VHS rip of Tulleners’s Scorpion and listen to an extensive review by All Natural Reviews on You Tube.

Nope. Again. Not John Howard’s fault.

The John Howard sidebar, Part Deux: The 1985 Hong Kong actioner The Serpent Warriors (Wikipedia) — starring Clint Walker (Killdozer, TV Movie alert!), Eartha Kitt (as a snake bitch!), Christopher Mitchum (Aftershock, SFX Retaliator, double yes!), and Anne Lockhart (Battlestar Galactica: TOS) — is not the same John Howard who directed our beloved Spine. (Don’t forget: Asian-Pacific Rim-produced oddities from the ‘80s VHS fringe are infamous for their untraceable, americanized director-pseudonyms.) While its rare VHS goes for about $40 bucks, beware of those bogus DVD-R grey-market rips (and know your regions before you buy, if you must). Sadly, there’s no video-hosted VHS rip of The Serpent Warriors, but you can watch the trailer on Daily Motion. If you need to know more, you can read an extensive “Snake Week” review at Daily Grind House. Here’s to hoping the fine folks at Vinegar Syndrome or Arrow Video do a reissue of this slithery, beautiful disaster that, somehow, “roped” Catwoman and BSG’s Sheba into starring.

“Dude, you know way too much about John Howard. What kind of a freak are you?”

I know, right? It’s an illness, my addiction to these forgotten VHS’ers of ’80s yore.

Okay, I need to go get my “freak” on. Now, where is that little rabbit? Where’s the chicken? Have a knotty . . . uh, I mean, naughty Halloween, ya’ll!

Speaking of Italian and Spanish Giallo films: I dive into the genre this Halloween season with my investigative-reviews of the heavy-metal horror classic Rocktober Blood and the tales of Paul Naschy’s Alaric de Marnac in the films Panic Beats and Horror Rises from the Tomb, which I expanded upon with my “Exploring: Italian Giallo Films of the ’60s and ’70s” feature.

Post Script: Courtesy of Mill Creek “Explosive Cinema” 12-pack, which we reviewed in full, we have since posted full reviews on Scorpion starring Tony Tulleners and The Serpent Warriors starring Clint Walker.

About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.