Day 26: Don’t Mess with Texas: Watch one set deep in the heart of Texas. (Okay, we cheated . . . it starts in Texas and ends up in the pancreas of Texas, aka New Mexico.)
Yes, Sam . . . this does, in fact, fit into our “Slasher Month” for October. Although, technically, this is more of a serial killer “stabber-impaler,” but more on that later. . . .
One of the wonderful aspects of writing for B&S About Movies (i.e. cleaning the grease pits and dumpster pad out back) — besides the movie-themed drink recipes acquired during our Saturday Night Drive-In Asylum Double Feature Watch Parties brought to you by Bill Van Ryn, the publisher of the quarterly Drive-In Asylum and webzine Groovy Doom — are the rabbit holes: those wonderful analog white rabbits that lead us into a strange and absurd celluloid universe of once unwanted and forgotten direct-to-video gems. The “rabbit hole” in this case began with our review of Dennis Devine’s second film, Dead Girls, and his most recent film, Camp Blood 8, which lead to our upcoming “Drive-In Friday: Dennis Devine Night” tribute where we reviewed Get the Girl starring Danielle De Luca.
And . . . are we really inside a rabbit hole . . . or is it the psychedelic experience of the libations flowing forth from the B&S Bar n’ Grill? Whow, dude. I just blew liver . . . and my mind. Nope. Your mind and your optics’ rods n’ cones processed that DVD box correctly.
Joe Mantegna of CBS-TV’s long-running Criminal Minds (aka Joey Zasa from Godfather III, Warren Beatty’s Bugsy, Stephen King’s Thinner, and, most importantly, one of the greatest faux-DJ’s to ever grace the silver screen, Ian the Shark from Airheads . . . oh, okay, yeah, and Fat Tony in The Simpsons) did an “Eric Roberts” (i.e., appear in few scenes to get a “name” on the box for marketing purposes) to help his ol’ buddy, Thom Eberhardt. (But Mantegna is in more scenes that the usual Eric Roberts gig (The Evil Inside Her). In fact, Naked Fear is third time Eberhardt and Mantegna worked together: their other films are (the really good) TV movie Face Down (1997), with Peter Riegert (Animal House) and Kelli Maroney (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Chopping Mall), and I Was a Teenage Faust (2002), with Robert Townsend (The Meteor Man).
And, as we’ve said many times before in the digital ethers of B&S About Movies, that “Eric Roberts” casting-marketing works: if I didn’t see Joe Mantegna on the box, I wouldn’t have clicked deeper into the film. But wait a sec . . . no, it can’t be? It is! That’s under-the-radar directing-favorite Thom Eberhardt of the video rental and HBO subscription-favorites Sole Survivor and Night of the Comet (with Kelli Maroney; it’s “all in the family,” after all).
We say “under the radar” not as an insult to Thom, as we believe his name should be as remembered-revered as Tobe Hooper (Lifeforce), William Sachs (Van Nuys Blvd.), and Jim Wynorksi (Forbidden World). You’ve watched more of Thom’s movies than you realize. He directed the always-awesome Sir Michael Caine as a drunken Sherlock Holmes in the comedy Without a Clue (1988), Keanu Reeves (alongside the recently convicted Lori “Aunt Becky” Loughlin) in The Night Before (1988; which Thom also wrote), and Gross Anatomy (1989) with Matthew Modine and Daphne Zuniga (The Dorm that Dripped Blood). But the biggest film of his directing career, that is, the best-distributed and best remembered — courtesy of its star, Kurt “Snake Plissken” Russell — is Captain Ron (1992). Oh, and we can’t forget Thom wrote Disney/Touchstone’s Honey, I Blew Up the Kid (1992).
“Since your Christmas Movie goofy ’round ‘ere, did you know that the guy who made Soul Survivor and Night of the Comet wrote a Christmas movie, All I Want for Christmas (1991)? December’s coming up . . . so put that on your review’s shortlist for December.
“Hmmm. Lauren Becall, Leslie Neilson. Interesting . . . I’m on it.”
Anyway, sadly, Thom drifted away from mainstream Hollywood courtesy of the negative reviews for Captain Ron — and the $22.5 million gross against its $24 million budget. (Personally, and in spite of Martin Short’s camera-mugging, I liked it; come on, it had Kurt Russell in another eye patch!) At that point, Thom transitioned into low-budgeted TV movies — with Twice Upon a Time, Ratz, and the aforementioned Face Down and I Was A Teenaged Faust — with Naked Fear being his last feature film, to date. But, as you can tell by the title, there’s nudity in this one, full-frontal nudity (of the non-sexual nature), so this one’s strictly a direct-to-video release (I’ve never come across it on subscription cable). In fact, that “nudity” aspect is pushed to the forefront in its overseas release. So, if ‘ol Joe doesn’t inspire you . . . it’s all in the marketing.
Okay, so . . . now for the Halloween-cum-October theme month-cum-slasher purpose behind this review. And, no. While you may think this is all influenced by Cornel Wilde’s (Sharks’ Treasure) The Naked Prey (1965), which had its roots in the 1924 short-story by Richard Connell, which became the 1932 film of the same name, The Most Dangerous Game, and Robert Sheckley’s grandfather of sci-fi “death sport” films, the Italian-made The 10th Victim (1965), based on his 1953 short story, The Seventh Victim, you’d be wrong. In fact, another variant of Connell’s novel — with its production also inspired by a serial killer we’re about to discuss — is 1994’s Surviving the Game, a present-day variant starring Ice-T as a kidnapped homeless man hunted on preserve by Gary Busey and the late Rutger Hauer.
So, in our last week’s reviews for Black Circle Boys (and this month’s upcoming reviews for Deadbeat by Dawn and River’s Edge; search for ’em) we discussed the real-life serial killer/murders that inspired those films. And in the case of Naked Fear, screenwriter Christine Vasquez used the exploits of the “Butcher Baker,” aka Robert Christian Hansen (he was a baker-by-trade, learned from his father), who, between 1971 and 1983, abducted, raped, and murdered at least seventeen women (mostly prostitutes) in and around Anchorage, Alaska. His modus operandi: he flew them out to (he was a licensed bush pilot) and dumped many of them into the wilderness and hunted them down with a semi-automatic rifle and a knife — and he kept their jewelry as mementos. He was also an avid hunter who excelled at archery (which carried over into the movie) — and took up arson. Sentenced to 461 years and a life sentence without the possibility of parole, Hansen died in prison, in 2014.
So, yes. While you’ve seen the “human death sport” plot many times before, such as the sci-fi variant Predator or the in recent, controversial-flop The Hunt (or the recent mocksploitation knock-off American Hunt), and all of the celluloid grandchildren born that we discuss in our review of Elio Petri’s aforementioned The 10th Victim, you’ve never seen the “human hunt” done so effectively on a small budget. Yes, it’s inherently better than American Hunt, which attests to Thom Eberhardt’s directorial skill set.
Danielle De Luca (also of 2011’s worth-the-watch Grizzly Flats with Judd Nelson, 2009’s pretty cool, award-nominated horror based on The Donner Party, Necrosis, and the Dennis Devine rom-com DeWitt & Maria), who’s very good here in her physically-demanding role, stars as the new-in-town Diane Kelper. Also new to town is recently hired sheriff deputy Dwight Terry (Arron Shiver of George Clooney’s The Men Who Stare at Goats, and as Dean O’Banion in the awesome Boardwalk Empire with Steve Buscemi, and Billy Barnes in AMC’s Longmire), a big city disgraced cop.
Deputy Terry, of course, wants the hell out of Podunk, New Mexico, and sees career redemption in the town’s recent rash of missing women — and ulterior-motive driven Sheriff Tom Burke (Joe Mantegna) wants Duputy Terry to back off the case. Of course the Sheriff does . . . and no one in the town cares, either; the missing are (in a nice subtextual turn-of-the-script) just strippers, prostitutes, or drifters that are just as worthless as the deer that’s killed for sport in these parts; the girls are, like the deer, are just “meat” after all.
After winning a bar dance contest in her Texas hometown, the naive Diane is lured to this small, dusty New Mexico boomtown — where game hunting is its main industry — and discovers her “dancing job” is at a seedy strip club. The club’s owner and his agent promised Diane a dancing gig as a “stepping stone” to a prestigious job in Las Vegas — but not the one in Nevada, but in New Mexico, east of Santa Fe (“. . . there’s two? Shit!”). Then she comes to realize she’s been scammed into a twisted form of indentured servitude of no financial escape. So, to make ends meet, she takes up prostitution as side job — which also benefits her bosses and was always their endgame. Her first client is Colin Mandle (as with the discussed Robert Christian Hansen), a successful food industry owner, avid bowhunter, and bush pilot who spends his evenings in strip joints and beds prostitutes. And Diane wakes up naked and alone in the wilderness. The hunt begins.
To tell any more would be to give away the effective, twist ending of who the newest serial killer to emerge in these parts — “The Southwest Slayer” — really is.
The upside to Thom Eberhardt’s direction is that, while those overseas video boxes push the nudity angle, and Danielle De Luca is fully nude for a (short) portion of the movie, the nudity is neither gratuitous or offensive and is essential to the plot; even the torture Diane endures before “the hunt” is downplayed. So, in the hands of a lesser, low-budget provocateur, Naked Fear could have degraded into a pseudo-soft core porn film (see Spine; yes, that was “the point” of that film, but work with me, here; while it bears similarities to Richard Speck’s July 1966 Chicago murders of eight student nurses, the film was not based on those killings). So kudos to Thom, not only for keeping the nudity at bay, but for dialing back the graphic horror to create a tight, survivalist thriller. And De Luca wasn’t cast because of how she looks in the buff: she illcits sympathy in her role, and pulls out all of the stops when the hunt is on. I’d really like to see De Luca her rise out of direct-to-videodom into smaller, featured roles in mainstream productions, or pop up in a Law & Order: SVU or Blue Bloods (you know my fandom for those two series). Ditto for Arron Shiver, who recently turned up alongside Christian Bale and Matt Damon in Ford v Ferrari (2019).
Yes, the film is a little long on the hour forty minute side, but since this wasn’t intended as a TV movie — which would require an 80-minute cut to fit into a 40-minute, two hour commercial block – Eberhardt’s frames aren’t superfluous. Changes are, as with most domestic TV movies or direct-to-DVD productions, and with Mantenga’s name, Naked Fear most likely had a limited, foreign theatrical release; thus, the length works.
The only issue I had with the plotting of the film: the cliff scene. After a blow to the head with a pretty large rock and a 30-foot cliff fall, our killer pulls a “Jason Vorhees” and come back, again — sans head wound, blood, disorientation, and nary a broken bone. Eh, that’s how all movies of this type roll (i.e., the victim has a false sense of victory-redemption). But it’s excused, thanks to Christine Vasquez’s solid scripting, Thom’s directing, and good acting against-the-budget from all that keeps you gripped in fear — and shocked that the story, while it seems preposterous, is actually based in fact.
Thom Eberhardt and Christine Vasquez have recently reteamed for the currently in-development Los Wildcats del Norte. You can keep abreast of that production’s developments at their official Facebook page. Some of the other films that you’ve seen from Naked Prey‘s producer and distributor, CineTel Films, include 976-EVIL (1988), Class of 1999 II: The Substitute (1994), Christmas Icetastrophe (2014), and Nic Cage’s Kill Chain (2019).