It sounds like a match made in heaven, a movie catered to my every fantasy. It combines my two biggest loves: men and murderers! And with a name like Fraternity Massacre at Hell Island, first-time director Mark Jones already had me salivating. Visions of scantily clad jocks towel slapping each other in the showers--along with drunken displays of brotherly love and naughty hazing rituals (ummm, pizza!), all under the shadow of a mysterious killer ready to pounce with his sharp wit and big, impaling weapon--danced through my head as I eagerly popped this baby in.
But early in the film when a character says "We're actors! We don't have to apologize!", I immediately had a sinking feeling in my stomach--especially after I got a taste of the acting level we were dealing with (when a film can make Daphne Zuniga's work from the similarly themed The Initiation look Oscar worthy, you're in trouble). It sounded like a claim that would come back to haunt the viewer, a bit of ironic foreshadowing that would have us demanding an apology by the end of (what would turn out to be a not-so-short) 76 minutes.
Unlike "first gay slasher" HellBent, this is a comedy first and a horror film second. I certainly wasn't expecting much from Fraternity Massacre, but the extremely low-budget effort is trapped between two good ideas--and can't pull either one of them off. With a lack of scares and gore, it won't cater to horror fanatics (watch a victim hold the ax up to his chest so it doesn't fall!); with a lack of wit and intelligence in the script, it won't satisfy those looking for enlightening parallels between horror monsters and coming out of the closet; and with a lack of truly gross gags or over-the-top scenarios and dialogue, it won't please viewers searching for a rollicking romp through the sheets at Zeta Alpha Rho fraternity (the fact that the "ZAP" shirts are one of the film's high points is not a good sign).
What surprises me the most about Fraternity Massacre is how safe and bland it is; if ever there was an opportunity to go gay hog wild, it's here (I didn't recommend Gay Bed & Breakfast of Terror, but at least that film went for it). And even though I'm not a real fan of the Another Gay Movies, at least they keep your attention. Here, all we get is a boring effort that doesn't do nearly enough with its premise. Case in point: A tepid double-death has our killer slipping poisoned pills into some unsuspecting fraternity brothers' cups (I know the film doesn't have a budget, but is that the best it can do?), and the script can't even do anything funny with the "itchy throat" dialogue that follows (c'mon! You don't have one lowbrow suggestive snark up your sleeve? Since when did any gay writer shy away from an oral sex joke?!). It's a double failure, and like the rest of the movie it isn't even trying--it's almost as if it's happy to rest on its premise alone and be done with it.
And that's a shame, because I love the idea--and would kill to see the film re-made with a bigger budget, snappier screenplay and bettor actors (hmm, maybe that comment isn't as flattering as I thought it was...). The film unfolds like chapters of Slashers for Dummies, starting with the inciting event in 1984: A quartet of asshole singers (who I think are meant to come across a lot younger than they look) at a patriotic community theater production straight out of Waiting for Guffman are put under a curse by a disgruntled gypsy woman (it's a sad statement that their singing is better than their acting). They "die", damned to eternal hell on their island (more like a college campus surrounded by a moat) until they can find four new people to take their roles (yeah, it doesn't make sense to me, either), which apparently consists of them getting four new chumps to perform their entire production from start to finish.
Flash forward to 2007, where psychotic inmate Johnny Brooklyn escapes from the insane asylum, with a big "Suspect #1" tattooed to his forehead. We soon meet the horndogs at Felix University, including young Jack (Tyler Farrell), a freshman pledge at ZAP who's sleeping with senior frat bro Roger (Michael Gravois), a.k.a. Suspect #2. Roger--who the bros allowed into the frat because of his family money--has an odd obsession with Star Wars and likes to brandish a knife and talk to himself when he's alone ("Oh, there will be trouble tomorrow night, my precious!"). He also likes to engage in expository exchanges with Jack, including this little nugget about Suspect #1:
Jack: "Didn't somebody go insane last year?"
As Hell Night nears, pledge masters Tommie (Kaleo Quenzer) and John (Billie Worley) have some pranks up their sleeves as they force the six ZAP wannabes to spend the night on the "island" (this was filmed in Memphis, so I refuse to use that word without quotes). That doesn't sit well with Suspect #3, Tommie's neglected girlfriend Sarah (Corie Ventura). She likes to scowl and clench her fists as she talks to herself: "I have to get you away from that fraternity! Until I do, I will always be second best! Damn those guys!"
Also antagonized is Jack's roommate Andy (John Pickle), a loose cannon with an odd clown obsession ("Mr. Clown, we're gonna be in Zeta Alpha Rho even if it kills us!" he demands, later curling up in the fetal position with crazy eyes). Suspect #4 also has a chip on his shoulder--seems ZAP didn't select him as a pledge even though his father is the former frat president...although there's one slight asterisk to that nugget of information, revealed in another expository exchange with Jack:
Jack: "Why didn't they pick you?"
But if it were up to Suspect #5, Hell Night wouldn't even happen. Dean Jones (Jim Eikner) is a crotchety old man who likes to exert his authority over cheerleaders. He's also on meds for some killer headaches that have him talking to his dead mother: "You're right, mother...we must make those fraternity bullies pay for what they've done! I'll take care of it, just like the others! You'll be proud of me!"
Despite the Dean's decree to cancel Hell Night, the boys blackmail him and prep their pledges for a night they won't soon forget. The "island"--which for the purposes of this film can only be accessed via a skywalk with a chain fence and one key (never mind the numerous shots of the city in the background, which looks like it's about a 10-second swim away from safety)--holds a few surprises. In addition to the four ghosts out to free their damned souls, we also meet Suspect #6, a.k.a. Debbie (Ashley Howell): "My father was one of the performers that died here in 1984. I live here now to be close to his spirit."
Night falls as the pledges are locked inside and the frat brothers plan to set their spooks in motion, but a psycho dressed in a clown suit (sigh...a clown?!) starts to knock them off--performing a little happy dance over their dead bodies. But fear not! Here to save the day is brainy sanitarium shrink Dr. Calloway (Helen Walk Bowman), whose voiceover as she enters the "island" is one of many eye rollers: "Getting my master's degree in juvenile delinquent behavior sure pays off now and then!"
Like the rest of the dialogue, I suppose it's meant to be funny, and I get that this is tongue in cheek. But for such obvious material to work, the acting and production values have to be a lot better. So watching this very old woman try and save the day as she dispenses with dull quips ("Johnny Brooklyn! You put that knife down! You are not a killer! Well, at least not in this county...") just falls flat. She engages in a pathetic "chase" (poor Bowman can't even walk fast; the golf cart chase from Club Dread was far funnier), one that ends with this groan-inducing punch line: "Help! I've fallen and I can't get up!" (Really?! That joke that was played in 1990; ditto The Clapper, another source of "humor" here).
I've devoted far too much time to the story and characters, because in reality Fraternity Massacre has neither. There's no legitimate attempt to formulate anything significant, and most of the characters are thrown in to be dispatched instantly. There are far too many roles, and the film fails miserably when it relies on chases or choreography to pick up the pace (the timing is off, and the actors and the editing aren't up to speed; it just comes across clumsy). It doesn't help that this economy effort is bathed in darkness, making it hard to see everything.
Jack--the closet thing the film has to a leading role--is still written as a disposable side character who barely registers on camera, while the gay jokes are so tame and infrequent, you'll feel cheated (a running gag with two frat brothers stealing each other's pants isn't as successful as it should be, while an okay library joke is eventually overused). The film has a few fleeting bright spots--and still manages to stomp on them quickly, ruining what little chance we have at fun. The film's biggest strength is the performances--and the chemistry between--Quenzer and Worley, who are a level above everyone else. They make an effort and distinguish themselves, providing much needed energy and charisma to the film. I'm not sure why Jones didn't let these two have a lot more screen time--one is killed off way too soon, leaving the other to disappear in the background. Tosh Newman also gets a few brief chances to show some charm as Clint, but he too is underused.
A few other mildly amusing moments pop up, including a sorta funny set-up for a slash sequence by the showers and a few funny Debbie moments. I wish I liked the pair of highfalutin, upper-crusty frat brothers who speak like the bastard children of Thurston Howell from Gilligan's Island and Mr. Garrison from South Park, but they were too random and silly (in a bad way). The film also does nothing new with its self-aware winks ("Someone ought to film a movie up here!" "Yeah! Like a chase scene or something!") or cheap gay jokes that you usually find in "straight" films (Sarah's friend asks her to "dyke out"!), and the final zinger at the start of the credits is just lame.
Regardless of how Jones (who also wrote the film) wanted this to play, it doesn't work. It isn't funny, and gags that are meant to make you laugh are just irritating--including Sarah's sudden appearance on the island, suitcase in hand ("I want us to elope! I packed a bag!"); and the scene where the ghosts convince four idiots to stop running from the murderer to perform a song and dance (what?!), at which point I was banging my head against the wall ("There's a killer out there and we're not doing anything but singing songs and waving flags!").
Scooby Doo is a lot funnier, scarier and more mysterious than this, folks. The cartoon is also far more colorful, which is the scariest thing of all--isn't that what us gays are supposed to be best at?!