I love genre cinema. I will always have a soft spot for horror, action, sci-fi, and all the subgenres that exist inside those larger categories. What I have never felt any real connection to are those films that exist in the realm of pure sleaze. You know the ones: the films from the ’70s and ’80s, filled with ugly violence and sex that is the opposite of titillating, usually shot on cheap film stock with semi-amateur casts. But knowing these films have a large following and several companies devoted to restoring them makes me wonder what I am missing. So, armed with a subscription to Vinegar Syndrome’s Exploitation TV, I am going to do a deep dive into the world of sleazy exploitation. This is My Exploitation Education.
In his very entertaining review of FROZEN SCREAM, our own Ryan Carey said that the film “defies analysis or understanding.” Accepting that challenge, I am going to attempt to understand one of the most truly inept (in both the best and worst senses of the word) films I have ever seen.
There is something to be said for films like FROZEN SCREAM that achieve what I like to call “accidental surrealism.” You aren’t going to find me on a soapbox claiming that it is a good film or even a mediocre one. It honestly is a dire piece of work. But the combination of a miniscule budget, sloppy filmmaking, and attempt to satirize the kind of new-age group therapy that bordered on cult-like that was popular in the mid-’70s makes for compellingly weird viewing for its first thirty minutes. The problem is that it goes on for another fifty minutes.
Legendary (in certain circles) screenwriter/producer/actor Renee Harmon stars as Lil, a college professor/mad scientist who believes that the human body is like any other machine: with proper maintenance and repairs, it should be able to last forever. Working with her lover and fellow mad scientist Sven (Lee James), Lil has successfully given “immortality” to a handful of college students she has plucked from her classes and weird group therapy sessions. But their version of immortality is closer to that of a voodoo-style zombie that can be controlled via an implant in the neck. When they nab fellow professor Tom (Wolf Muser) as one of their subjects, his wife Ann (Lynne Kocol) starts snooping around, putting her in danger as her investigation threatens to expose them.
The movie I just described is relatively straightforward and derivative. Part of me wishes that is the movie that FROZEN SCREAM actually is. But that movie would not have held my interest for at least a short while the way that what actually wound up on film does.
Writers Doug Ferrin, Celeste Hammond, and Michael Sonye along with director Frank Roach cram the first act of the film with strange dream sequences, halting narration by a police detective (Thomas Gowen) investigating Tom’s apparent death, and several shots of Harmon looking directly into the camera as she delivers her lines with dead flatness. This is the best section of the film.
FROZEN SCREAM was shot in 1975 but apparently was not screened until sometime around 1980 when it was presented to distributors (details on dates and circumstances seem to change depending on the source). It wasn’t until 1983 when it received its first commercial release via VHS in the United Kingdom (where it briefly was branded as a “Video Nasty”). It didn’t receive a U.S. release until it was offered as part of a VHS double feature with THE EXECUTIONER, PART II (which also featured Harmon as writer/producer/star) in 1985. Given the incredibly low quality of standards for direct-to-VHS films in the early-’80s, it says something about just how incoherent and slapdash the film is that it took so long to make its way in front of an audience.
While the slapdash feel of the first act sticks around through to the end, FROZEN SCREAM unfortunately becomes slightly more coherent as the plot rolls along. Once it settles firmly into traditional mad-scientist-playing-God territory, most of the fun that is had with the strange tangents and attempts at symbolic dream sequences go away (aside from a hilarious backyard party featuring extras over-dancing big time to one of the worst bar bands ever captured on film) and the film becomes a real slog to finish.
While Harmon went on to a productive working partnership with cult director James Bryan, Roach only made one more feature film, NOMAD RIDERS. I covered that film in this column back in September. While it is also not a good film in any traditional sense, it is a strangely entertaining one as it embraces the sort of weird tangents and indulgences that make FROZEN SCREAM worth watching for at least a little while. Am I giving Roach too much credit to assume he learned from his mistake of going too traditional in the last two acts of this film? Maybe, but I am just happy that his follow up was a significant improvement.
As my work on this column continues, I find myself gaining more and more of an appreciation for the type of “experimental by way of ineptitude” films like FROZEN SCREAM. I just wish that it had stuck to that endearingly odd filmmaking style all the way to the end. It is not until it tries to be a coherent film that it becomes a bad one.
–Matt Wedge (@MovieNerdMatt)
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Tags: Celeste Hammond, Doug Ferrin, Exploitation.TV, Frank Roach, Frozen Scream, James Bryan, Lee James, Lynne Kocol, Michael Sonye, My Exploitation Education, Nomad Riders, Renee Harmon, The Executioner Part II, Thomas Gowen, Video Nasties, Vinegar Syndrome, Wolf Muser