Just like that, I was hooked … or rather my Steppenwolf was hooked (the erudite hipster was still in gestation).
I consider the years between 1978 (the year of Halloween) and 1984 (the year of A Nightmare on Elm Street) to be the golden age of the slasher, what I call the Van Halen Era (since the band’s first and best six albums, all fronted by David Lee Roth, occurred in that period).
The post Van Halen Era, from 1985 to the mid-1990s, was okay, but bad things were starting to happen. Freddy Krueger fell into the Roger Moore syndrome, diluting the initial terror he inspired with snarky bon mots. Wes Craven, after redeeming the series with A New Nightmare, became a synthetic hot mess with Scream. The genre’s more beloved titles succumbed to low-rent direct-to-video sequels. Insipid rubbish like the Leprechaun series got a foothold on a naïve new generation of fan. By the time we got to the 21st Century, the slasher pics we loved were being remade as herky-jerky multi-cut MTV videos designed to disorient rather than disturb.
To paraphrase the great B. B. King, the thrill was gone.
That said, this film can be pretty rough going. Even the most hardboiled gore-hound may have to watch on an empty stomach. Like the previous year’s Franklin: A Symphony of Pain, which Donohue cowrote, coproduced, and acted in, Death-Scort Service assaults our senses with enough graphic imagery to make us cringe. Unlike the aforementioned masterpiece, Death-Scort Service doesn’t seem to have any underlying meaning. Its entire reason for existence is to titillate and shock, all the while paying homage to those classic off-Hollywood slasher films of the 80s. The effect can be unsettling, and if you prefer your horror with a bit more subtlety, you won’t find it here.
The premise is almost stock-in-trade for films of this genre. In an unnamed city, someone is murdering high-priced call-girls. Said killer courts these escorts with menacing phone calls (“I would like to remain anonymous” in a raspy whisper reminiscent of the Prom Night killer), then upon meeting each woman proceeds to murder and mutilate her in weird and unusual ways. Some of these killings are old school. Some of them are shocking. Some are downright stomach-churning.
All of them come with liberal buckets of blood.
If 80s slashers and midnight movies are your thing, you'll find a lot to love about Death-Scort Service. The film is chock full of homages starting with an opening credit sequence reminiscent of A Nightmare on Elm Street. All of the classics are referenced--Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, et al.--and the filmmakers seem to have a real affection for the material. I particularly like when the killer chases a young escort named Julie (Alice Reigns) through the woods, a set piece reminiscent old seminal thrillers like Torso (1973) and The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976). To augment the 80s tone, a hip retro electronic score by Toshiyuki Hiraoka recalls the early music of John Carpenter.
If I have any reservations about the film it’s that at times it goes too far. Of course, that’s what the film strives for, so in a way this is a back-handed compliment, but it's also a caveat to potential viewers. The distributor isn’t called The Sleaze Box for nothing, and Death-Scort Service is dripping with the sleaze. Parts of the film are downright nauseating, not just the killings (the baseball bat scene breaks serious ground in torture porn) but also an intimate “moment” between a sexy hooker (Ashley Lynn Caputo) and a filthy old biker (Bob Glazier, doing a spot-on Sid Haig) that goes disgustingly south.
I might have liked a bit stronger dialogue. I’m not looking for Waldo Salt here (it’s a movie about mutilating hookers, after all), but the script was little more than a skeleton upon which to hang the film’s violent set pieces. Our female protagonists are quite fetching, but we don’t really know them, and we find it hard to care if they live or die. The only time I was engaged on a character level is when the killer was chasing Julie through the woods; I silently rooted for her to get away. Otherwise, I had trouble keeping track of the victims as the first hour or so is a bit episodic.
Could I recommend this film? It depends on which of my dogs, the hipster or the Steppenwolf, you would most identify. This is not high art, and an argument could be made that it is overtly misogynist (although the ending undermines this criticism), but if movies like Saw and Hostel are too tame for you, you’re in for a good time with Death-Scort Service. It ain't high art (look to Franklin for that), but it’s slick and professional and will leave you shaking by its final frame.
Enter at your own risk, and leave your inner hipster at the door.