Listen, and understand. Wrenage is out there. He can’t be bargained with. He can’t be reasoned with. He doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And he absolutely will not stop, ever, until you have read another one of his Retro Reviews! This time The Destroyer (1988).
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The Destroyer (1988)
I remember one of the world’s first forays into pay-per-view. The channel was called “Viewer’s Choice.” Each month we received a flyer advertising the movies available. One movie stood out to my youth-addled brain – The Destroyer. The poster showed a muscular guy with a skull-head wielding a jackhammer. The jackhammer had a device mounted on it that was a cross between a camera lens, a gun scope, and a laser sight. It looked gloriously terrible.
I never saw that movie…until now. Let’s break The Destroyer down with full spoilers.
Big letters pop onscreen. The letters gradually float into position to spell the movie’s title: Shadow of Death instead of The Destroyer. This results in the scariest part of the movie for me. I wonder if my dementia has reached the point where I start watching the wrong movies after eating a bowl of sugar sprinkled with cereal and carefully placing my shoes in the toilet.
But, no, it is merely a sign of things to come. When a movie has two different titles, you can pretty much bet it will reach a level of quality equivalent to Queen Anne Chocolate-Covered Cherries.
Brach’s Chocolate-Covered Cherries are where it’s at, kids…or where it was at. Not sure they are available anymore, or at the same level of juicy goodness. Brach’s merged with the Ferrara Pan Candy Company in 2012. But why are we talking about candy?
Because rambling asides are also a symptom of dementia…
Clayton Rohner is dressed as a priest and strolls down a decrepit prison hallway. Alcatraz has about 100 years of salt erosion and needs a coat of paint less than this place.
Rohner is a guy you’ve seen before. He’s had roles in genre movies like The Relic and TV shows like the X-Files. A current show he popped up in is Ozark. His look in The Destroyer is interesting. He has lots of hair, yet he looks bald at the same time. It borders on being an optical illusion.
Rohner is on his way to visit the movie’s villain, who is played by deceased NFL great Lyle Alzado. I remember 60 Minutes doing a special on Alzado as he tried to make an NFL comeback back in the day. He was shown getting a form of excruciating massage that was supposed to stimulate muscle growth. Alzado lay on a table and screamed like Nicholas Cage being attacked by bees.
Alzado projects a genuine presence on camera. He easily could have risen to the acting heights of a Jean-Claude-Van-Damme-nemesis. To the uninitiated, that might sound like an insult. To me, it is like comparing a woman’s beauty to a full moon shining on new-fallen snow.
Alzado squeezes a doll head and watches a Wheel Of Fortune knock-off while he waits to take a seat on the electric chair. Rohner wants to talk about Alzado’s impending death, but Alzado is more concerned about whether or not the contestants on the game show will ask for a “B.” Alzado is so engrossed by the game show, that he ignores his last meal, which looks like a child’s interpretation of a hamburger through the medium of Play-Doh.
Eventually, Alzado takes his last walk. The hallway is lined with TV monitors displaying the game show. This seems odd. The prison can’t afford paint, but it can afford that many TVs? Alzado is seated in the electric chair as the game show talks about a recliner as a prize. That’s kind of clever.
Rohner reads Psalm 23, but Alzado is unmoved. The guards strap Alzado’s pecs down and ask if he wants a cigarette. Alzado wants them to turn a TV around, so he can watch the game show to his end.
The executioner walks in wearing a black hood. This is all very surreal. The warden reads a list of Alzado’s crimes. Alzado did bad things to 23 men, women, and children. Alzado corrects the warden. He did bad things to 24 men, women, and children.
Not only is he evil, but he’s also pedantic. That’s worth the electric chair alone.
The switch is thrown. Alzado vibrates like one of those heads in Jacob’s Ladder. The electric system shorts out. Alzado looks dead. Rohner gives him last rites. But no, Alzado is still alive! He grabs Rohner and throws him through the observation window.
Obviously, the filmmakers are drawing a parallel to the viewer’s penchant to want to watch people suffer by shattering their illusions. Basic cinematic language really…
Alzado pulls the hood off the executioner, and it’s a woman played by Deborah Foreman! You will recognize Foreman from April Fool’s Day and Real Genius.
Foreman wakes up. No wonder the opening of the movie was weird. It was all a dream. Rohner is not a priest. He is Foreman’s boyfriend. He has pictures of Alzado all over the wall of their bedroom. He is a movie screenwriter who is writing a prison movie. All of the pictures are for research.
Foreman and Rohner banter. As an aside, my wife and I also banter. It’s super cute…
“Honey, you look as beautiful as the full moon shining on new-fallen snow.”
“Shut up, you freak! I can’t wait until you’re dead!”
The First Act
The Destroyer has a movie-within-a-movie thing going on.
Wohner is the screenwriter of a movie filming at the now-abandoned prison where Alzado was executed. Foreman is a stuntwoman. The name of the film is Death House Dolls. Other characters include an actress, played by Lannie Garrett, who is best known as a singer/entertainer in Denver, Colorado. She looks a bit like Counselor Troi from Star Trek: The Next Generation. There’s a special effects guy played by comedian Jim Turner, who was “Gas Station Owner” in The Lost Boys. The director of the film-within-a-film is none other than Anthony Perkins.
Malcolm McDowell was originally supposed to play the director part. Perkins is clearly amused by the slumming and poking fun at auteurs, but the joke quickly wears thin. He doesn’t have anything to do beyond being annoyed and riding the camera crane.
With the opening behind us, and the characters established, the movie wastes no time going into its death spiral. The Destroyer is only 94 minutes long, but it feels longer. The movie gets trapped in a time loop. The characters cycle from movie set to electric-chair room to basement to movie set to electric-chair room to basement to movie set…
A bottle-movie can work fine. The problem is that everyone feels like they are killing time rather than participating in a plot. If you look at the creators of the movie, you will see people involved mostly with editing and documentaries. That may explain what we end up with.
Here are some first-act highlights:
Rohner brings a mannequin into the prison. The mannequin is supposed to double Not-Counselor Troi in her electric-chair scene. The Janitor wonders if the mannequin has lady parts. This is supposed to be creepy, but doesn’t everyone wonder this about mannequins?
An intern sticks his face in a copier because he is funny.
Foreman wanders around the prison and occasionally finds creepy dolls with messages on them that say something like “I’m lonely. See you soon.”
Around the 240-minute mark, the first victim becomes slasher fodder. The warden pops in to tell the movie crew they shouldn’t be there. After delivering this warning, the warden takes a bathroom break and is fried by faceless killer wielding an acetylene torch.
Meanwhile, Foreman jumps from a third-level catwalk into an airbag as part of a stunt scene.
At this point, my endurance is waning. Low-budget horror movies that constantly retrace the same ground to fill time are kryptonite to me. I feel like Wesley being tortured by Rugen in The Princess Bride. I’m being honest about how I feel, you know…for posterity.
The Second Act
Characters continue to move between the electric-chair room, basement, and prison set. The lights go out to give the characters a reason to keep going into the basement. By my count, the lights go out about three times over the last 60 minutes of the film alone. Such a thing seems like a lack of effort to me. I imagine the screenwriters sitting around and having this conversation:
“How do we get the characters from the electric-chair room to the basement?”
“How about a power outage?”
“Brilliant! Now, we need a subplot, something to really get viewers invested in the characters…”
“How about a power outage?”
“Land’o’Goshen, but you’re a genius! We’ve about got this screenplay licked, but we still have to figure out a way to cut the execution short in the opening…”
“How about a power outage?”
“Are you sure you’re a human being and not some kind of cyborg story-telling machine from the future sent to help me write the greatest horror movie ever? All right, one final challenge remains…how in the world can we get the special effects guy killed?”
“How about a power outage?”
“I have chills. Marry me…”
Eventually, a motorcycle cop shows up to be slasher fodder. This is the first time Alzado has been onscreen since the beginning of the film. Alzado employs the jackhammer from the movie poster (no camera lens/gun scope/laser sight on it, though) and jackhammers that motorcycle cop good.
To his credit, Alzado brings energy to the movie. Unfortunately, his go-to move is psycho-laughing. The laughing gets old. More experienced filmmakers probably would have told Alzado to tone it down a bit. Simply being an intimidating behemoth is enough. The laughing is a bit over-the-top. And “by a bit,” I mean “by a large margin, comparable to the size of a blue whale’s jockstrap.”
The next person to bring something special to the movie is Not-Counselor Troi. She begins a boozy, weepy lament of her career. People once wanted her; now she is starring in a stupid horror movie and being treated with contempt by the director. Not-Counselor Troi pretends to talk to Robert Redford on the phone. I genuinely felt something for her character. Nice job, Lannie Garrett.
Not-Counselor Troi ends up in the basement. It is then revealed the Janitor is in cahoots with Alzado. The Janitor is actually Alzado’s father, not that is particularly matters. Not-Counselor Troi leaves the basement to return to the electric-chair room where she meets her demise.
Next, the movie tries to find a loophole around being sleazy. A shower scene comes out of nowhere, and naked girls wrassle. But it’s not sleazy because it’s a movie-within-a-movie. This makes it a satire of sleazy, which is something that only the most refined of erudite folks can appreciate. Also, Perkins runs a handheld camera and shouts, “Animate! Animate!”
Meanwhile, Foreman is off looking for a wig so she can double for Not-Counselor Troi. Foreman is successful at her riveting quest. When Foreman returns to the movie set, she finds blood everywhere. Apparently, Alzado showed up and killed the entire movie crew offscreen and removed their bodies, all within a couple of minutes. He also took time to leave the intern’s head in the copier. Truly, the intern was the epitome of wit to the end.
While all of this is happening, Rohmer is in town having lunch. It turns out that the cook is the man who threw the switch to fry Alzado, but the execution didn’t work.
“You mean Alzado is still alive?”
“No, He’s half-alive!”
I have no idea what that means, and I don’t want to expend the brainpower necessary to figure it out. Maybe I don’t have dementia. Maybe this movie is simply simulating dementia for me.
The Third Act And Climax
After going between the basement and prison set, Alzado eventually gets Foreman strapped into the electric chair. It’s worth noting that Alzado really goes for it here, acting-wise. He cuts Foreman’s hair and eats it. He crawls around like a dog and French kisses a pair of scissors. Does he also laugh? You bet he does…heartily!
Eventually, Alzado, Foreman, and Rohmer end up back in the basement. Once in the basement, they have a car sequence where Rohmer and Foreman drive around and Alzado punches a hole through the roof of their vehicle. Yes, you read that right. They go down into the basement to have a car sequence. Do they end up back in the electric-chair room? Of course, they do! Can you guess what happens after that? They return to the basement…
This movie is breaking my brain.
Thankfully, this is the final trip to the basement. Rohmer gets beat up by Alzado for a while. Foreman then sets Alzado on fire and explodes him Jaws-style with an oxygen tank.
Cut to a hospital. Foreman is in bed. A nurse comes in. The nurse turns out to be Alzado in Freddy Kruger makeup. Alzado tears off his ear for Foreman…then eats it…while laughing.
But no, this Auto-Cannibal-Van-Gogh apparition is yet another dream. Foreman wakes up. She is in a hospital, yes, but she is watching over the recovering Rohmer. They hold hands. The music comes up. The end.
Whew! The Destroyer was tough to sit through. Some novelty exists in watching Alzado ham it up and in watching Perkins slum it up. A couple of good ideas appear here and there, and setups and payoffs are competently-handled. Nevertheless, the movie didn’t come together in a package that was more than the sum of its parts. It is simply a bunch of parts rattling around.
The only way to cheer myself up after this experience is to go banter with the wife.
“Honey, if I think you’re as beautiful as the full moon shining on new-fallen snow, what do you compare my handsomeness to?”
“How about a power outage?”
Summary: The Destroyer is aptly named. It destroyed my brain.