The Film: 3/5
Long one of the Holy Grails for fans of 1980's slice n' dice horror, the 1980 Cannon Films production New Year's Evil makes its eagerly-anticipated debut on Blu-ray after previously being available only as an online exclusive MOD DVD from current license holder MGM. You can count on that disc and the out-of-print Paragon Video VHS to quickly be made irrelevant because Shout! Factory, via its fan favorite imprint Scream Factory, has gifted this somewhat forgotten psycho-thriller with a fresh HD transfer and some new bonus features of mixed quality.
It's New Year's Eve in Los Angeles and Diane "Blaze" Sullivan, America's "first lady of rock" is about to go live with a special holiday edition of her popular television rock showcase "Hollywood Hotline" that plans to count down the final seconds of the year in every time zone from the Big Apple to the City of Angeles. As the show gets underway Blaze receives a disturbing call from a creep calling himself "Evil" who announces his intention to commit a murder as the clock strikes midnight in every time zone. The killer (Kip Niven) goes about his bloody mission while Blaze, reluctant to cancel the show for fear of caving in to the madman, is forced to keep up appearances while dealing with the stress of both the police investigation and her troubled son Derek (Grant Cramer), a wannabe actor who has been feeling neglected by his famous mother. The top of every hour marks a new victim and brings Evil one step closer to his planned confrontation with the woman he intends to be his final prey of the night, Blaze Sullivan herself.
I vaguely remember New Year's Evil from the time I first watched it on a late night local horror movie show at the age of 9. That was also, until very recently, the last time I watched this particular - and peculiar - red-headed stepchild of the golden age of the slasher flick. Before they earned their infamous reputation as the relentless schlock factory that never closed and made stars of Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson, Cannon Films used psycho-on-the-loose movies like this and X-Ray (a.k.a. Hospital Massacre) to get its foot in the box office door. The company usually made bank exploiting whatever genre trend was popular in cinema at the time, so naturally they had to pump out a handful of the 80's goofiest celluloid horrors. While most slashers were drab and nihilistic, Cannon's entries were typically lurid and colorful like the best Italian giallos. New Year's Evil is short on sleaze and keeps what little gore content at its disposal restricted to the aftermath of each murder sequence (and it's barely enough to earn an R rating), but what it lacks in exploitative qualities it makes up for in other areas.
Unlike its bloodier peers, New Year's Evil refuses to put its psycho behind a mask. From the moment he's introduced we know his face. We just don't know exactly who he is, and director Emmett Alston (Demonwarp), who co-wrote the screenplay with Leonard Neubauer (Russ Meyer's Black Snake), keeps that plot detail under wraps for a third act reveal that is actually surprising unless you choose to pay attention to a few strays line of expository dialogue in the opening moments. Since the killer is given a face there really isn't much of a point in keeping him in the shadows as he stalks his prey, so we're granted the luxury of watching him put every step of his plan into action. Sometimes he uses a clever disguise since his normal features are unexceptional and a device that alters his voice whenever he calls into Blaze's show with updates on his murder spree. As played by Niven (Damnation Alley), the man we know mostly as Evil bears a closer resemblance to charming psychos like Ted Bundy than the typical masked maniacs that stalked horny teens in the more popular slashers of the era. Instead of stalking his victims from afar and then leaping at them with his weapon of choice (in this case, a switchblade), Evil dons his finest suits and seduces the beautiful women he targets - such as a sanitarium nurse played by Taaffe O'Connell (Galaxy of Terror) and a chatty bar hopper played by a hilarious Louisa Moritz (Death Race 2000) - until they let their guard down. Then he strikes.
This bastard is methodical and though he makes a sporadic mistake he is truly Evil. That is, until his identity is revealed and we realize this whole time we've been made to fear yet another pathetic white man who can't deal with empowered women. If New Year's Evil hadn't been made before Siskel and Ebert's infamous show devoted to eviscerating the slasher horror genre then it would have been sensible for Alston and Neubauer to be pranking the renowned film critics under the guise of churning out another exploitation fright flick. To be fair, even though Ebert slammed the movie on its release he actually offered some mildly positive praise when he wrote that Evil "is almost quaint in the way it corresponds to the conventions and clichés of an earlier time".
Cinematographer Thomas Ackerman, working under the pseudonym "Edward Douglas", bathes the scenes in gloriously garish neon colors that enhance the sordid atmosphere and give certain scenes an uncomfortable tension when the script and performances fail to do so, which is more often than a movie like this should. Ackerman had his best work ahead of him as he later went on to shoot Tim Burton's short film Frankenweenie and some of the funniest movies ever made, including Beetlejuice and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Alston's direction rarely lets the action lag and breaks up the killer's routine with a second act encounter with a unpleasant biker gang that leads to a chase to a crowded drive-in with entertaining results. The forgettable soundtrack by W. Michael Lewis (Shogun Assassin) and Laurin Rinder, who together composed the scores for Cannon's Enter the Ninja and Revenge of the Ninja, can't hold a candle to the selection of original songs performed by the fictional groups "Shadow" and "Made in Japan" during Blaze's show that attempt to emulate the chart-topping New Wave rock hits of the time with surprisingly listenable results. However, New Year's Evil, like most movies made during the 1980's, has a very befuddled idea of what constitutes punk music.
Niven is the real star of the show despite Roz Kelly's top billing because the movie spends most of its time following him around L.A. as he kills and kills some more and he convinces as a twisted lunatic who manages to keep his act together long enough to earn the trust of his victims. Kelly (American Pop) makes for a serviceable heroine even though she never does anything heroic during the movie. Sometimes the actions she takes to defy Evil's threats come across as insensitive. Blaze doesn't even get to have a real showdown with the killer who has been taunting her since the first reel, leaving that up to a stoic cop played by Chris Wallace (Don't Answer the Phone!). Grant Cramer (Killer Klowns from Outer Space) gets a few unsettling moments as Blaze's honestly disturbed son, while Jed Mills (Casino) gets precious little to do as her manager. In the end this is Kip Niven's show, and fortunately the man gives as good as he gets. His performance is probably the main reason why New Year's Evil is worth watching at all.
Scream Factory presents New Year's Evil in a clean and vibrant MPEG-4 AVC-encoded 1.78:1 widescreen transfer remastered in 1080p high-definition. Grain is kept to a minimum most of the time with the occasional exception, the colors are bright and strong, and flesh tones are warm. The fine details in the print have been improved. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track is a terrific recreation of the original theatrical sound mix with audible dialogue and strong, balanced volume levels that real kick in during the performances by Shadow and Made in Japan. English subtitles are also included.
A very mixed bag. First off there is a new audio commentary with director Alston moderated by Code Red's Bill Olsen. but Olsen does most of the talking while the clearly bored Alston pipes in with an observation or story once in a while. It seems the moderator had a better time revisiting this movie than its own director. Thankfully the retrospective documentary "Call Me Eeevil....The Making of New Year's Evil" (37 minutes) goes a long way towards making up for the commentary's lack of value by assembling new interviews with director of photography Ackerman and actors Niven, Cramer, and O'Connell. There are no meaty production stories or stunning insights by the interviewees but at least we get a better picture of how this movie came into being than the commentary offered. The original theatrical trailer (2 minutes) closes out the extras.
There is an audience still out there for New Year's Evil. I may not be among its fans but I can see why this oddity from the golden age of slasher flicks has stood the test of time. Those who can't enough "Eeevil" will be quite satisfied by the new transfer and bonus features scared up by the good folks at Scream Factory.