Slasher Hash: The Night Brings Charlie (1990)

A farcical but fantastically entertaining slasher, anyone? Dave heads to Florida to look at a rarely-seen slice of regional horror. Featuring an interview with scripter Bruce Carson!

“I’m involved in an absolute nightmare, but then I blame myself in all honesty.”

A quote from a battle-weary Bruce Carson, fresh from trying to resuscitate the plan for a sequel to THE NIGHT BRINGS CHARLIE (1990) – a slasher film that snuck out so late in the cycle, that all that was left was a rusty chain and a water bottle holder.

It’ll be a magnificent victory if he succeeds in unwrapping the tangled web of litigation that stretches all the way back to the early ‘90s. It was caused by the disintegration of fly-by-night distributor, Quest Entertainment, whose CEO, Hugh Parks, was convicted of scamming $3million from investors in a failed attempt to transform Orlando into Hollywood East [1]. It was a simple and well-worn ruse whereby Parks and co. would convince would-be investors that they were putting their cash into high-end product, not the thinly budgeted B-movies that they were actually producing.

Naturally, this scheme led to bankruptcy for Quest, which is why Carson is struggling to press forward with a sequel. More importantly, it’s the insolvency of this Sunshine State swindler that’s the reason why you’ve barely heard of The Night Brings Charlie, as Carson explains:

“The Night Brings Charlie was only the second film shot on the lot and on the soundstage at Universal Studios in Florida [2]. Quest bought it, Hugh Parks went to prison, and they confiscated all the assets of his company – the desks, the copy machines, and the video library. All this stuff went up for auction to compensate the people who they owed money to, but Parks told me that when this sell-off happened, no one bought my film. By law he still owns it, and he claims that he has all the materials stored in his garage in Florida, and now everything is completely rotten.”

Shot on 16mm, the idea for this regional oddity came to Carson on the set of Evil Altar (1988). A stuntman by trade, he was hanging out on the porch of a hundred-year-old house when he caught a glimpse of an old pruning saw. Thinking that it would make a great weapon for a horror movie, Carson set about penning his first screenplay, drawing from some lessons learned a few years prior from a cult movie icon.

“I got into screenwriting through a well-known writer by the name of Earl E. Smith. He wrote The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972) and The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1978). I met Earl through a friend of mine and he was living on the beach in California. I said to him “Can you teach me how to write a script?”, so he reached over on his desk and grabbed a script and handed it to me. “This is the only copy of this I have. But I’m going to let you have it for now. Take it home. Look at it. This is the format for writing a screenplay.” I took it home, looked at it, and saw it was called ‘Cowboy Vigilante’. I studied it and stuck to that exact layout while I began to practice the craft. A few months pass and the phone rang at home. It was Earl E. Smith. “Tell me you still have that script, because I’ve just sold it to Clint Eastwood!” That guide script I’d been using was about to become Sudden Impact (1983)!”

That old gardening implement did indeed become the cleaver of choice for a serial killer who’s terrorising the small Texas town of Pakoe, where slumber parties and sleepovers do little to quell the anxiety of twitchy town coroner Walt Parker (Joe Fishback), a fella whose step-daughter is of prime revelling age. Suspicion is immediately cast upon deformed local tree surgeon Charlie (Chuck Whiting), clad in the ubiquitous slasher favourite of dungarees and plaid shirt, as well as a fetching sack-cloth hood and a pair of aviator goggles – which clearly piqued the interest of Gabe Bartalos for his horror-comedy Skinned Deep (2004). Predictably, things aren’t exactly as they seem, so it’s up to the laid-back Sheriff (Kerry Knight) to discover the identity of the decapitating degenerate.

Critically speaking, The Night Brings Charlie is a bomb. It swipes a litany of horror cliches and tropes, some more specific than others, and it would be easy to shrug it off as the belated placenta of a bygone era. Genre guru Justin Kerswell labelled it “a trifle dull” and, given its rarity, concluded that “it’s not one that you need to hunt down”. Quite the opposite, I think it’s a buried treasure that rarely lets your attention waver during its brief seventy-five-minute runtime.           

The sun-kissed Floridian farmland initially seems at odds with the grisly tone of the picture, but it’s an aspect that provides it with much-needed originality. The prolific Tom Logan [3] is in firm control of the suspense, and David Williams’ pendulous score suits the shocks to a tee. The star, though, has to be Carson’s script, which flips from funny (the ongoing joke about the pronunciation of Pakoe is a delight) to knowingly farcical, and revels in having more red herrings than the Baltic.

The reveal of the killer manages to be both anticipated yet astonishing, which is the ideal summary for the most whacked-out, far-fetched, goofy-ass slasher you’ve never seen. Seldom stale, it’s a twisting, crazy, low-key thrill-ride that’s as flawed as it is fantastic. A regional horror masterpiece.

“You know what?” muses Carson at the end of our call. “The best things that have ever happened to me in the movie industry have all not been planned. My friends and I were working on this show, oh, it was a horrible film called Metalstorm (1983). Growing up, I’d done martial arts, I was a bike racer, I’d done hang gliding. One night the guy at the next campfire over says, “Hey kid, can you do half the stuff you claim to be able to do?” That was the stunt-coordinator, and he said he was starting a stunt school, and he invited me over. I was there barely a month, and Tony Cecere and Wes Craven came walking in. They were looking for a double for The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 (1984), for the actor Kevin Spirtas. So I did that, and just as we wrapped, Tony and Wes came over to me again to ask if I could come over to New Line the following week so they could size me up with an actor that they’re thinking about casting for a new movie. I walked through the door and there stood Johnny Depp. It was A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).

[1] ‘Jurors Convict Three in Movie Scam’ by Twila Decker, Orlando Sentinel, 13th December 1996
[2] The first film? Ron Howard’s Parenthood (1989) with Steve Martin.
[3] In 1990 alone, Logan would co-direct the boisterous Baboon classic Shakma, and call the shots on Kristy Swanson’s Dream Trap.

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