JULY 1 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : THE EDGE OF HELL AKA ROCK ‘N’ ROLL NIGHTMARE (1987)
WRITTEN BY 1000MISSPENTHOURS.COM
The late 1980’s were a distressingly long time ago, so permit me to set the stage for those of my readers who don’t clearly remember them first-hand; those who do can either bear with me or skip on ahead. Perestroika, Glasnost, and the approaching end of the Cold War will get all the attention in the history books, of course, but if you were an American teenager in those days, the big event that impacted your life most directly was probably that decade’s great Satanic Panic. It has become commonplace to characterize any hysterical outbreak of political scapegoating as a “witch hunt,” but in this case the term is appropriate in an eerily literal sense. Fundamentalist Protestant whack-jobbery was reaching the apogee of its cultural and political power (Pat Robertson ran for president— president!— not once but twice) just as the snake-oil salesmen of the psychotherapy industry were rolling out their boldest therapeutic scam yet— recovered memory theory. Suddenly the news media were awash with reports that Satanic cults were active in all walks of American life, robbing graves, turning day-care centers into dens of child sex abuse, and holding rituals of human sacrifice in the basements of Elks lodges— the “evidence” for these wild claims stemming mainly from the “recovered” memories of psychiatric patients and their equally suggestible kids. Geraldo Rivera shot a widely aired and patently phony “exposé,” preachers and psychologists wrote scads of books on how to protect your children from the disciples of Hell, and parents across the land dashed off bushels of fretful letters to Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren. And most importantly, ordinary, otherwise seemingly sensible people actually believed this shit!!!! As is so often the case, the most frequent rallying cry of the anti-Satan activists was “for the sake of the children,” and every imaginable form of youth-oriented weirdness came under attack for having supposedly Satanist subtexts. Horror movies, role-playing games, and virtually every genre of anti-establishment music were condemned as recruiting tools of the Satanic conspiracy, but beyond question, the anvil fell hardest on heavy metal.
To a certain extent, the headbangers really were asking for it, having spent a decade and more gleefully waving the banner of cartoon devil-worship first unfurled by Black Sabbath and their ilk at the turn of the 70’s. It’s hard to blame the squares (the parents, the teachers, the pastors) for being horrified by a display of shock tactics specifically designed to horrify them, after all. But the expressions that horror found rapidly became pathological, insane. Church congregations got together to burn their adolescent offspring’s record collections before the approving gaze of film crews from the local TV news. Tipper Gore and her Parents’ Music Resource Center lobbied Congress to expand its statutory definition of obscenity to encompass Man-o-War albums, and Ozzy Osborne was hit with a wrongful death lawsuit when two parents noticed one of his records on the turntable the night they came home to find their teenage son dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. So far as popular opinion was concerned, heavy metal was quite literally the Devil’s music.
So against this background, set Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare/The Edge of Hell. On the surface, this is nothing more than an endearingly terrible homebrew horror movie, but in the context of its time, it’s a whole lot more than that. In the context of its time, Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare is a fucking manifesto!
It seems pedestrian enough for the first hour or so. A prologue sequence (which is shot with a degree of technical sophistication that is almost totally absent from the rest of the film) has a family of three, living in a farmhouse outside of Toronto, getting ready to start the day. Mom is in the kitchen frying up a pan of hash browns. Dad is upstairs shaving (Eek! Bare-Breasted Countess flashback...), and Junior is in his bedroom reading a comic book. Mom opens up the refrigerator, and is suddenly bathed in an eerie, orange light. When Dad responds to her screams, he finds no sign of her, but there is a skeletal zombie monster lying in ambush in the oven. We may safely imagine what happens to Junior at this point.
Ten years go by (but not so you’d notice— the fucking tractor is still parked on the exact same patch of perfectly trimmed lawn), and the farmhouse is only just now receiving its new tenants. These tenants are the heavy metal band Triton, together with their various girlfriends and their manager, Phil (uncredited, but process of elimination says he’s Adam Fried, from Student Affairs). The idea here is that the band will spend the next five weeks taking advantage of the seclusion and absence of distraction that the farm offers to refocus themselves on their music and regain their waning edge. Nobody but lead singer and principal songwriter John Triton (Jon-Mikl Thor, about whom we’ll talk at length later) is terribly impressed with this plan, and frankly I can see their point— the whole enterprise reeks of half-measures. I mean, what kind of retreat from the hectic rock and roll lifestyle is it if you’re just down the road from one of the biggest cities in Canada, and you’ve brought all of your chicks with you? For fuck’s sake, bass player Roger (Frank Dietz, of Black Roses and The Jitters)— Roger Eburt, no less— and his squeaky-clean piece of ass (Lian Abel) are taking this trip as their goddamned honeymoon! Christ, even the dimmest rock and roller knows you don’t bring the girls along when you do something like this, even if they aren’t as contentious and divisive as Lou Anne (Jilian Perry), the studiedly obnoxious paramour of faux-Australian drummer Stig (Jim Cirile). And sure enough, the members of Triton will do far more fighting and fucking than they will rocking or rolling over the course of this ill-conceived sabbatical.
All of which doesn't even begin to address the main problem confronting our heroes, which is that their rented retreat is infested with three or four different varieties of crappy rubber demon. The spawn of Hell first make their presence felt by eliminating and replacing Phil, who is seduced by a demon pretending to be Lou Anne while he rummages for spare drumsticks in the basement of the barn whose main floor the band is using as their rehearsal studio. (Oh, and by the way... if nobody has set foot in this place in ten years, then how in the hell did the managers for Rod Stewart and Alice Cooper arrange to build a 24-track recording studio in the goddamned barn?!?!) Then an assortment of lame rubber zombies and even lamer rubber hand-puppet Cyclopes start popping up to take out the rest of the cast one by one. Along the way, we’ll also be treated to several scenes of the band pounding out some of the material for their new album, and to some of the most terrifying sex scenes in the annals of film. Nothing says “Aaargh! My eyes!” like John Triton and his aptly named girlfriend, Randy (Teresa Simpson, who also had a teeny, tiny role in The Toxic Avenger), getting it on in the shower…
Like I said, pretty standard thus far, once you get beyond the mostly irrelevant point that all the Expendable Meat either plays in a cock-rock band or is fucking somebody who does. But once the cast has been whittled down to just John Triton, Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare takes a turn for the giddily bizarre. Randy, now possessed, corners John in the studio’s control room, where he had been working on a new song. Speaking in that generic, distorted “Ooh, look at me— I’m possessed” voice, Randy taunts her erstwhile love with the deaths of all of his bandmates, but Triton is oddly unconcerned. What’s more, he has suddenly taken to calling Randy “Bub.” Bub? Short for Beelzebub, of course! And just how is it that John Triton, Heavy Metal Dude, knows the true identity of his supernatural foe? Because he’s really the Archangel Triton, sent down from Heaven on a mission to put Old Scratch in his place, and to avenge the deaths of the family who once lived in the farmhouse! Phil, the girls, and the other band members, meanwhile, were entirely illusory, phantoms patterned after characters from cheap horror movies. (“I knew I recognized that geeky bass player from somewhere,” the Devil grumbles in exasperation.) Triton then stands up from his seat, and is instantly illuminated by blinding white light, his flowing blonde mane now whipping around his head with gusts of mystical wind. And as Satan reveals his true form— a full-scale, seven-foot rubber monster the shittiness of which is entirely beyond my ability to describe— Triton takes on his as well. When the camera cuts back to him, Triton’s hair has been permed up to ludicrous height and girth, stylish black eyeliner has magically appeared on his eyelids, and his frumpy jeans and t-shirt have been replaced by a short black cape and a studded leather codpiece! Triton strikes a quick bodybuilder pose, and the battle is joined. Whatever else it may be, Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare is without a doubt the only movie ever made in which the ultimate battle between cosmic good and cosmic evil plays out as a fistfight between a half-naked heavy metal archangel and an almost completely immobile rubber Satan.
And in light of that fact, I think it is also beyond question that Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare was made, at least at some level, as a deliberate refutation of the conventional association between heavy metal and evil. Jon-Mikl Thor isn’t just a totally untalented Canadian B-movie actor, after all. Before he made himself known to the moviegoers of the world (or at least, to those of us with no taste whatsoever) in films like the infamous Zombie Nightmare and the utterly forgotten Police Academy rip-off Recruits, Thor had gained a different sort of notoriety fronting a series of metal bands. (And before that, he had been a both a male stripper and a professional bodybuilder, winning the Mr. Canada and Mr. USA titles late in his teens.) The best known of his musical projects was the outrageously theatrical concept-band Thor; what I’ve read makes them sound like what might have happened if Gwar had latched onto Robert E. Howard novels instead of trashy gore movies as their primary inspiration, and had played dreadful cock-rock instead of dreadful speedmetal. What’s more, Thor didn’t just star in Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare, he wrote and produced it as well, while the band the movie shows him fronting apparently really is his group from the time, the Tritonz. Thus when John Triton belts out the lyrics to “We Live to Rock” in the first rehearsal scene, it’s safe to say that Jon-Mikl Thor really means it. That fact and all that goes with it impart a certain insane earnestness to Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare, which in turn causes the movie to transcend its status as a third-string metal-monger’s cheesy little vanity project; awful as it is, Jon-Mikl Thor plainly cared a great deal about this flick, and saw in it something like his opportunity to tell the other side of the story. Perhaps you find that funny, or perhaps you find it merely sad. I myself find it perversely inspiring.