Cinedelphia Film Festival Review: GIRLS SCHOOL SCREAMERS (1986) & BLADES (1989)
Welcome to Screen Invasion’s coverage of the first annual Cinedelphia Film Festival, a celebration of the City of Brotherly Love’s lesser known cinematic history (the motto: “we’re more than just Rocky”). A month long filmic carnival running from April 4 – 27, the Fest offers everything from a tour of The Stoogeum, a local museum dedicated solely to the Three Stooges, lost or little seen short & repertory films, and full blown local premieres, such as the Fantastic Fest favorite, Vanishing Waves. If you’re in the area, join in on the fun, and if you’re a SI reader, get ready for select coverage of Cinedelphia’s feature film selections.
Opening your film festival’s “Features” slot with a Troma double is a dubious proposition at best, as the range of opinions from even the most diehard fans of Lloyd Kaufman’s Z-Grade horror house range from “great” to “utterly unwatchable”, depending on the title. But instead of choosing a movie showcasing one of Team Troma’s cult icons (Toxie, Sgt. Kabukiman), Eric Bresler, organizer of the Cinedelphia Film Festival, went with a pair of little seen slashers from the ’80s. Before the first film of the night, Girls School Screamers, began, writer/director/producer John P. Finnegan was invited up on the makeshift stage that had been erected in the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art (yes, you read that right) and had this to say about working on the picture:
It’s 1985 and I said to my friends, ‘just gimme a little bit of money and I’m gonna go out there and make a movie’. I wrote the script, and it wasn’t called Girls School Screamers [note: later in the night the original title was revealed to be The Portrait]. The title wasn’t changed until Troma got their hands on it and they changed it. And my friends said, ‘John, you don’t know anything about making a movie. You didn’t go to school. Hell, you don’t know which way to point the camera.’ I told them I had this idea. I’m gonna go up to NYU and I’m gonna talk to the graduating classes. So I call up the dean and I tell them I have $100,000 and I need some people…and then we came back to Philly and made the movie.
The slapdash nature of the production shows in every frame of Finnegan’s micro-budget slasher, but so does the amibtion. While there are some very silly moments in his tale of Trinity College coeds who are selected to catalog the contents of a mansion for their University’s estate sale, only to be picked off one by one by a vengeful ghost, there’s also a ton of heart and commitment. Finnegan didn’t want to make a sleazy slasher movie akin to the era’s other college set slaughter-fests, such as the Linda Blair starring Hell Night or Daphne Zuniga snoozer The Dorm That Dripped Blood. His vision was described by editor Tom Rondionella & crew member William Pace (the respective director and co-writers of the night’s second Finnegan produced fright flick) as being more along the lines of “Hitchcock”. The forty-five seconds of extreme gore the film showcases were actually shoehorned in after Troma agreed to distribute the film, and went totally against how Finnegan saw his own movie playing.
Truthfully, Girls School Screamers doesn’t resemble Hitchcock (it’s more along the lines of Norman Thaddeus Vane), but does attempt a weirdly straight faced approach to the silly, convoluted story. While the acting is as wooden as an old desk chair left in an over-flowing garbage dump, Finnegan’s script weaves a fairly intricate tale (relatively speaking) revolving around an incestuous, long-dead relationship into what would otherwise be a fairly by the numbers hack n’ slash. While cleavers halve faces and hooks are planted squarely between shoulders, there’s at a least a hint of desire for some kind of “deeper” art. Unfortunately, the lmited budget and marginal amount of talent both in front of and behind the camera transform what maybe could’ve been a C-Grade cult hit into a “so bad it’s good” laugh fest.
I wish I could say the same thing for Blades, a near beat-for-beat recreation of Jaws set at a country club that substitutes an industrial sized lawnmower in for good ol’ Bruce the Great White. What sounds like an absolute absurdist classic on paper is, sadly, hamstrung by an opening thirty minutes that (even its creators agree) render the movie a difficult sit.
Complete with POV shots of the mower’s roaming blood hunt, there are stand-ins for Chief Brody (a newly arrived, alcoholic course pro), Quint (a former groundskeeper who has a familial connection to the machine), and even Mayor Vaughn (the utterly deflective course owner). But while the references and, at times, scene-for-scene replication of Spielberg’s classic are funny for about fifteen minutes, Blades is a painful bore when stretched to one hundred. Yes, there are some great gory moments (the death of the Quint equivalent being the best of the bunch), but it’s a one-note premise that, when combined with the truly awful canned late ’80s soundtrack, feels like a bit your best friend from junior high used to tell every single day at lunch after smoking a joint (until one random Thursday when you finally told him to “shut the fuck up already”). But it should be noted that I was one of the few seated in the former showroom of death that didn’t find the film that funny, and that the filmmakers themselves were quite proud of their accomplishments “holding up”. So what do I know?
To give credit where it’s due: the night was a pleasant one, and a great symbolic start for how I feel Eric Bresler wants his newly minted Fest to be perceived. This is as far from mainstream as one can get, and everything from the makeshift theater to the off-the-cuff Q&A after the film screamed DIY. Cinedelphia is injected with a truly punk rock spirit that cannot be denied, and I hope that the goofy, imperfect but ambitions films stand as a solid representation of what’s to come over the next three weeks.