New Year's Evil Blu-ray Review
Written by Robert Gold
Blu-ray released by Scream Factory
Directed by Emmett Alston
Written by Leonard Neubauer
1980, Region A, 90 minutes, Rated R
Blu-ray released on February 24th, 2015
Roz Kelly as Diane “Blaze” Sullivan
Kip Niven as Richard
Grant Cramer as Derek
Louisa Moritz as Sally
Taaffe O'Connell as Nurse Jane
Jed Mills as Ernie
Chris Wallace as Lt. Clayton
John Greene as Sgt. Greene
Diane “Blaze” Sullivan is the host of Hollywood Hotline, California's most popular music television call-in show, and tonight is her big New Year's Eve special. She's under a lot of pressure to keep her fans entertained and is pulling out all the stops this year, including scheduling live performances from a pair of hot rock bands, Shadow and Made in Japan. Things hit a sour note when a caller going by the name “Evil” announces his resolution to kill someone close to Blaze at midnight, Eastern Standard Time. She's not really too concerned about this weirdo and the show goes on, until a short time later when he calls back and plays an audio recording of the murder. “Evil” promises to kill again as each time zone reaches midnight, until the West Coast rings in the new year, and he claims Blaze as his final victim. The police are on the case, but can they catch this mysterious psycho in time or will this celebration be her last?
The slasher film cycle peaked from 1980 – 1984, and many entries shared similar elements no matter how diverse the scripts or titles. The movies followed a formula that usually introduced their villain into a basic variety of scenarios, including avenging a previously perceived slight,usually on a particular calendar date, or simply punishing teens in a wooded (campsite) environment for engaging in pre-marital sex and drug abuse. The message was usually conservative and puritanical: sin equals death. Titles like Black Christmas (1974) and Halloween (1978) laid the groundwork, while Friday the 13th (1980) pushed the genre to the forefront. Soon, no holiday or school function was safe, as most served as springboards for terrifying cinematic events. New Year's Evil (1980) came relatively early in the craze and managed to simultaneously borrow from previous entries and to influence others in its wake.
Working from a screenplay by Leonard Neubauer (Black Snake), Director Emmett Alston (9 Deaths of the Ninja) establishes the plot's ticking clock scenario right away and works to build suspense in each subsequent scene. Knowing the killer will strike at midnight allows audiences to root not only for the police to stop the villain but also for the evil plan to succeed until then next time zone checkpoint, thus keeping the game in play. Instead of setting the events inside a sorority house or a quiet neighborhood, this picture focuses the mayhem on a television program similar to American Bandstand, with the killer growing ever closer to the host. The film works in the popular phone gag of having the villain taunt his victim à la When A Stranger Calls (1979) and “Evil” disguises his voice with a modulator, much like the villain in Scream (1996) some fifteen years later.
It is perhaps more interesting to note how this film handles some of the traditional elements differently than the majority of the slasher wave. For starters, the victims are not teenagers, but rather partying adults in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Final Girl is kept in a single location, separated from the majority of the action, and the killer's face is not hidden behind a traditional disguise. He rotates his wardrobe to appear as various authority figures and at one point even sports a bitchin' fake mustache. Although he briefly dons a creepy 'Stan Laurel' mask during the finale, the movie is more interested in getting him close to his intended target than with what he is wearing when he finally does so. Unlike the costume-changing killer in Terror Train (1980), viewers can readily identify “Evil” on sight, but do not know his true identity, which allows for a nice twist ending. On the opposite side of the equation, in Final Exam (1981), the undisguised/ unnamed killer remains totally random to the environment, whereas “Evil” has a relevant place within this story. Also fairly unique here: the villain's plan is flimsy and frequently compromised, thus forcing him to improvise in order to reach his hourly deadline.
Roz Kelly (Happy Days) disappears inside the role of “Blaze”, an entertainer determined to be a star. The character is selfish to a fault and puts her career before family, making it difficult at times to root for her. I'm not suggesting she deserves to be terrorized by a madman in an elevator, but she isn't going to win any 'Mother of the Year' awards either. Her husband is absent and her son Derek is going through some steep emotional troubles, not that she can be bothered to step away from the cameras long enough to care. Grant Cramer (Killer Klowns from Outer Space) happily pushes his screen time into the bizarre as Derek descends into suicidal madness while being ignored by the one person he needs most.
Kip Niven (Damnation Alley) is pretty awesome as Richard, a guy with an amazingly expressive face and a lot of energy. He keeps things moving and manages to have audiences rooting for him even with all of his character's shortcomings. Potential victims include Taaffe O'Connell (Galaxy of Terror) as Nurse Jane, who works at the local mental hospital, and Louisa Moritz (Death Race 2000) as the bubble-headed Sally. Working the case are Chris Wallace (Don't Answer the Phone) and John Greene (Schizoid) as Lt. Clayton and Sgt. Greene respectively. In addition to the cast, credited Cinematographer Edward Thomas (actually Thomas Ackerman, Beetlejuice) deserves special mention, as his work gives the picture a vibrant look that makes everything pop.
Alston's capable direction plays the material straight and thus enhances the black comedy elements of the script. It is fun to see “Evil” repeatedly screw up his own plans or get mired in everyday problems when trying to create his murderous masterpiece. Alston makes good use of the bands appearing on the program and works in an early sight gag of punk rockers dancing to a slow instrumental blues jam. New Year's Evil is undone by a ridiculous number of red herrings and some uneven performances, but still manages to be entertaining. The final act confrontation remains satisfying and the bonus twist at the end is strong enough that I find it surprising that a sequel never followed.
Video and Audio:
New Year's Evil makes its hi-def debut in the original 1.78:1 aspect ratio and has never looked better. The unexpectedly bright colors, solid black levels and general image clarity are all major improvements over the earlier home video release. An HD transfer has circulated on cable for a few years, but this Blu-ray gives the film room to breathe and it really is an impressive sight. There are a few imperfections in the source material, but this 35-year old horror is in better shape than expected.
The DTS-HD MA 2.0 track preserves the original stereo presentation but exposes some of the innate weaknesses in the mix. Dialogue is occasionally tinny, but music levels are surprisingly full.
English subtitles are provided for anyone in need.
Call Me Eeevil (37 minutes) is a relaxed series of interviews with cast and crew members, including Thomas Ackerman, actors Kip Niven, Grant Kramer and Taaffe O'Connell, all reflecting on their time making this movie. The stories are entertaining and everyone seems genuinely happy to share their memories, but the absence of Roz Kelly is a bit of a disappointment.
Director Emmett Alston's audio commentary is informative but a bit stale, as the moderator frequently has to push the conversation along. The stories are interesting and filled with bits about the difficulties of shooting a low-budget horror movie, but the energy on the track is lacking.
Rounding things out is the original theatrical trailer.
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