Forgotten Films: Nightmare at Shadow Woods
The 1980s was a turbulent time for American cinemas. The studio system was methodically reclaiming the movie theaters and home video was beginning to spread its blight but there was still a little of the old grindhouse magic left. By 1987, the odds of finding a grindhouse gem at the local cinema were about as rare as finding any meat in a public school lunch hamburger. My fearless movie going pal John Hickey and I would dutifully scour the local newspaper every Friday with the faint hope that there might be something new at the theaters besides the latest lame Michael J. Fox comedy or Patrick Swayze snooze fest. It was on one of these Fridays that my eyes fell on a newspaper advertisement for a film I had never heard of before, even in the pages of my beloved Fangoria magazine. This ad showed a fanged skull rising in the moonlight from behind a tombstone with a tagline promise that “some things never rest in peace”. Jackpot!
We walked into our home town Litchfield theater that weekend, the Cinemas West, anticipating some good old fashioned exploitation entertainment but we had no idea what we were in for. Our first clue came immediately following our ticket purchases when the theater’s assistant manager Wayne, who always looked more like a real estate agent in his ill-fitting blue blazer, appeared from out of a dark corner and greeted us with “I bet you boys are here to see the turkey of the week!” Did I mention we were on a first name basis with most of the employees at this theater due to our almost weekly pilgrimages? Realizing that it would only add to our cinema going experience, Wayne went on to explain that we were in for a really bad one this time. According to him, we were about to see a slasher movie where the majority of the budget looked like it had been spent on the “star” – Louise Lasser from the 70’s soap drama Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman! Better yet, this film had been completed in 1983 and was gathering dust on the shelves when some studio needed a filler film to hold their spot at the theater because some major picture was running behind on its release date. I have no idea how he came by this information back in the dark days before the Internet but needless to say our already bright fires of enthusiasm for this film were now firmly stoked!
Contrary to the newspaper ads, Nightmare at Shadow Woods is really just a fairly predictable slasher film firmly rooted the 80’s vein which, by 1987, was already starting to run dry. The film begins with a flashback to a drive-in theater in the grand old year of 1974 where most of the patrons, including a young Ted Rami in a two second cameo as a restroom condom salesman, are dressed more like the 80’s than the 70’s. In one of the cars Nightmare’s only name, actress Louise Lasser who looks just as old here as she does in the rest of the film, is trying to make time with her boyfriend while her young twin sons are supposedly asleep in the back seat. While mom makes out, Terry and Todd sneak off for some good natured mischief at the passion pit. Things take a turn for the gory when Terry finds a hatchet in the back of a truck and decides to do a little chopping on a young couple doing the nasty in their car. After the girl runs naked screaming and jiggling into the night, Terry frames his shell shocked brother for the murders and we bid 1974 farewell.
Ten years later, as the film informs us, we find mom visiting Todd in a mental institution where he has spent the better part of his adolescence following the drive-in incident. Presumable Terry has been normal this whole time after getting his pagan blood lust out of his system. Todd’s doctor thinks he is making a breakthrough from his seemingly catatonic state and remembering the events from the night of the murder – including the fact that he didn’t do it. A reunion between mother and son ends in some gratuitous pumpkin pie mashing when mom proves her grip on reality isn’t much firmer than her sons.
Later that night at dinner we find out that 1.) it’s Thanksgiving, 2.) mom and her new squeeze, Brad, are getting hitched and 3.) Todd has escaped from the loony bin and is most likely heading home. The combination of holiday stress and a soon to be legal rival for his mother’s affections are enough to reawaken Terry’s inner psycho and Todd’s escape gives him just the excuse he needs to start carving up the rest of the cast like the Thanksgiving turkey. From this point forward things get pretty bloody as Todd wanders around his family’s apartment complex trying to convince people he isn’t committing the string of grisly murders Terry is framing him for, mom gets progressively battier, and the psychiatrist and her assistant try to recapture their escaped patient.
After a fairly generous body count and some impressive special effects, courtesy of Ed French, that transcend the film’s limited budget, we wrap up with a final showdown at the apartment pool between Todd, Terry, mom, and Terry’s pseudo girlfriend Karen. Todd finally gets fed up with Terry’s frame job but its obvious self-defense isn’t something they teach in mental institutions and the psycho siblings end up in the pool with Todd on the receiving end of a butt kicking. Right after Terry pulls himself out of the drink, mom shows up packing a piece and makes darn sure this is one slasher who won’t be popping back up for any last minute surprises. The film’s happy ending is cut short though when it is revealed that mom has gone completely around the bend and thought she shot Todd. Thankfully Louise Lasser places the gun to her head and puts the audience out of its misery after watching her histrionics for the past ninety minutes!
Time has been surprisingly kind to Nightmare at Shadow Woods. What once seemed like a behind the curve routine slasher film now stands as a time capsule of the 1980s. Whether intentional or not, this film documents everything from over sprayed hair to way too short guy shorts to the dawn of home video games and all while a maniac runs around slicing up clueless teens! We also get the typical horror film elements of over the top gore, a killer who seems to be everywhere at the same time, and the obligatory nudity compliments of a gratuitous shower scene. What we don’t get, probably due to the film’s early in the decade origins, is the killer coming back from the dead multiple times to provide a supposedly shocking ending.
Beginning life under the title The Complex (as in apartment), the film then became known by the more generic moniker of Blood Rage before finally seeing release as Nightmare at Shadow Woods. John and I thought Turkey Terror would have been a far more appropriate title due to the Thanksgiving setting and truth in advertising! Whatever you call it, this one week wonder was out of theaters before anyone had time to question the misleading ads. It popped up shortly thereafter on VHS from Prism Entertainment, as Blood Rage, in a surprisingly uncut version before disappearing from video shelves about as quickly as it did from the theaters. Some fifteen plus years later, the film debuted on DVD under the Nightmare title in a bizarrely edited version. The gore is significantly trimmed down, the scene in the psychiatrists office which sets the tone of the “modern” portion of the film is missing, and a new scene at the pool is added that contributes nothing to the plot.
Diehard fans of 80’s horror films are strongly encouraged to seek out the VHS Blood Rage version of this film until it gets a proper release on DVD and/or Blu-Ray. The combination of impressive gore and 80’s scenery make for a fun walk down memory lane and it’s the perfect after Thanksgiving dinner movie to get your mind off irritating relatives. With the glut of generic product hitting the rental boxes almost daily, this film screams out for a special release. Hopefully it will be one where some of the key personnel can shed some light on its origin and troubled release history.