Welcome to The Prime Sublime, a weekly column dedicated to the underseen and underloved films buried beneath page after page of far more popular fare on Amazon’s Prime Video collection. We’re not just cherry-picking obscure titles, though, as these are movies that we find beautiful in their own, often unique ways. You might even say we think they’re sublime… and this week our pick is a totally American slasher from 1986 called Body Count.
“Sublime /səˈblīm/: of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe”
Ruggero Deodato is a known quantity when it comes to genre cinema from his first feature, Fenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankamen (1968) through far more well-known titles like Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man (1976), Cannibal Holocaust (1980), and Cut and Run (1985). His filmography includes several entertaining entries that are far lesser-known, though — my favorite being Waves of Lust (1975) — including this week’s Prime Sublime pick, a summer camp slasher called Body Count (1986). It’s as weird and messy and inappropriate and entertaining as you’d expect from Deodato, and it’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
What’s it about?
“This used to be an Indian burial ground,” says Robert Ritchie (David Hess) to his wife Julia (Mimsy Farmer), in regards to the rundown campground they’ve recently picked up for a song. Legend has it that an understandably enraged medicine-man cursed the ground itself as revenge against the white settlers who “discovered” it and, really, who could blame him? The legend is refueled when a young couple is murdered in the woods nearby, a pair of homicides that only young Ben sees while out looking for his lost Teddy Bear, and fifteen years later it’s about to start again.
A group of friends — strangers? it’s incredibly unclear if these people actually all know each other — head into the area with an RV and a dream for three days and nights of shenanigans, and they pick up a hitchhiker along the way. It’s a grown-up Ben (Nicola Farron) returning home after serving in the military, and he invites the gang to spend time at his parents’ cursed campground. Of course they accept, and soon the body count starts rising faster than a teenage boy’s pulse in a Victoria’s Secret store. Is the legend true, and is a culturally insensitive interpretation of a Native American elder stalking and slashing his way through the campers? Or is some sad sack white person simply using it as cover for their own twisted desires and actions?
I’ll give you one guess.
What makes it sublime?
File this ’80s effort under a very slim definition of sublime as its appeal will really only reach slasher fans looking for some old school fun. Body Count‘s screenplay inexplicably took four writers to crack, but no one can accuse it of not delivering on its title. From the opening double murder through a steady stream of stabbings, axings, slashings, tumblings, and more, we get a pretty hefty thirteen kills set against the beauty of Colorado’s majestic landscape — Colorado, of course, being a region in Italy as that’s where this US-set slasher was actually filmed.
The film’s attempt at pretending to be in America continues with dialogue that sees young bucks in Oakland Raiders t-shirts, singing the praises of dirt bike living, and impressing the ladies with their love of Miami Vice and Iron Maiden. Who hasn’t had a group of American friends that included cool dude Tony, overweight attention whore Sid, sporty Dave, sensible Carol, prankster Cissy, and a blond named Tracy who’s clearly dubbed by someone who thinks they know how American southerners sound but has never actually heard one? There are others as well, too many of them judging by how easily I lost track of who’s who, but aside from Andy Sidaris-favorite Bruce Penhall and Hardbodies‘ Grant Cramer — he’s not listed in the credits, but I swear it’s him! — the young people are interchangeable unknowns.
The adult cast is far more interesting for genre fans starting with the pairing of Hess and Farmer as a married couple. Between them, the pair have starred in a number of gems including Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), The Last House on the Left (1972), The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974), House on the Edge of the Park (1980), The Black Cat (1981), and Swamp Thing (1982). Add in the always welcome Charles Napier (Maniac Cop 2) and a score from Goblin’s Claudio Simonetti (Demons) and you have a pretty fun collection of horror favorites.
The legend at the heart of the film is clearly built on stereotypes involving the horror trope of vengeance visited on whites who dared decimate some far more noble culture and people from the past, but it never reaches the level of offensive as there’s so little thought or detail put into the tale. We’re told it’s a mad, undead Shaman haunting the woods and wreaking havoc, but there are no specifics beyond that. “Shaman belongs with the yeti and all that other fiction!” yells Sid at one point, and that’s the extent of the research on display here.
The killer is glimpsed quite frequently, and it’s immediately made clear that the film’s costume designer has failed to read the script. This dude’s got a monster face, hairy, werewolf-like hands, and a cape — although he’s not married to the wardrobe as evidenced by one scene where he puts on a girl’s shirt to pretend to be her and then surprise her boyfriend with murder. Shaman? More like shame on you, Body Count writers Alessandro Capone, Luca D’Alisera, Sheila Goldberg, and Dardano Sacchetti.
I give the foursome grief, but honestly, their script is half of the film’s entertainment value as it delivers glorious dialogue and a bevy of red herrings. The opening shot of little Ben seeing the killings makes him the obvious choice for the killer as kids in horror movie flashbacks always grow up to be psychos. Suspect! Later he has a flashback to seeing his mom cheating with the sheriff, after which she tells him “You mustn’t tell your daddy you saw me here. Because if you do, he’ll tell the Shaman, and the Shaman will get me.” Suspect! The mom has an elaborate dream involving her son, naked women turning into severed stumps, and a maggot facial. Suspect! “Yeah? Well you know what I think about democracy, let alone campers,” says the old doctor whose own daughter bites it in the prologue, and while we don’t actually know what he thinks about democracy he is clearly upset when campers arrive. Suspect! Hess plays the dad. Suspect!
Deodato keeps apace with the ridiculousness by turning every other shot into one that could easily be the killer’s POV and delivering a kill where a blond guy with a red backpack is pushed off a cliff but when we cut to him falling it’s a brunette without a backpack. All the women seem to strip down at one point or another, as does funny guy Sid, and there seem to be at least three different love triangles going on making for plenty of canoodling. And of course, this being an Italian production — albeit one totally and convincingly set in the US — the film goes out on a final twist that makes about as much sense as any of it.
And in conclusion…
It’s worth pointing out that the version of Body Count currently playing on Prime appears to be a few minutes shorter than its official running time — it runs 83 minutes compared to an original length of 87 minutes (or ninety depending on who you ask) — meaning this isn’t the ideal way to view it. That said, it’s not currently available on Blu-ray or DVD despite being a movie ripe for remastering from some horror-loving label like Arrow Video, Synapse Films, or Vinegar Syndrome, meaning this is the best option at the moment.
It’s no game-changer and instead plays into all of the expected tropes, but with this cast of veterans and new faces, its steady stream of saucy shenanigans and bloodletting, and Simonetti’s memorable score, Body Count is a lesser-seen slasher worth watching for slasher fans. It’s not great, but it’s never less than entertaining, and that’s more than a lot of movies can claim.