The Once and Future Smash + End Zone 2 had their world première at FrightFest 2022
This is a diptych of films: first the sequel End Zone 2 (1970), a proto-slasher which, though now mostly obscured by time and with its final half hour unwatched, forgotten and apparently forever lost, has obviously and directly inspired Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971), Black Christmas (1974), as well as the Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Friday the 13th and Toxic Avenger franchises (especially the sequels); and second, The Once and Future Smash, a feature-length retrospective documentary which gets talking heads from the genre community to discuss the importance and influence of End Zone 2, and tracks the reunion and reconciliation of two key cast members at the 2020 Mad Monster Party horror conference in North Carolina.
In other words, this is like a double feature of Claudio Fragasso’s Troll 2 (1990) – and Fragasso is one of the talking heads here – with Michael Stephenson’s Best Worst Movie (2009), or of Fred Dekker’s The Monster Squad (1987) with Andre Gower’s Wolfman’s Got Nards (2018), or of the TV miniseries It (1990) with Chris Griffiths’ Pennywise: The Story of It (2017), or of Jack Sholder’s A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985) with Roman Chimienti and Tyler Jensen’s Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street (2019). For here we have a marginal cultural item from the past, and its reappraisal in a new era of Blu-rays, horror cons, online fan communities and ironist viewers.
Except – and this is a mild spoiler – the original End Zone, said to have been shot in 1964 as part of a ‘football revenge craze’ in movies, never actually existed (despite its apparent existence on a trumped-up IMDb page), and its sequel too, purported to have been restored “from 6 partial prints and a partial Italian internegative” (which explains the title sequence in Italian), is not a real film shot in the late Sixties, but a modern simulacrum, made two decades into the twenty-first century. For it is like the films – Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof and Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror – that together made up the affectionately nostalgic double feature Grindhouse (2007), or the many faux-grindhouse films that appeared in its wake, like Jason Eisener’s Hobo With a Shotgun (2011), Jen and Sylvia Soska’s Dead Hooker in a Trunk (2009), Robert Rodriguez’s Machete (2010) and Astron 6’s Father’s Day (2011). All these evoke the psychotronic paracinema of a bygone age – and End Zone 2 is no different, with its jawless, cannibalistic ex-footballer taking out the female survivors of his mother’s murderous rampage 15 years earlier, and liquefying his victims’ flesh in an electric blender so that it can be conveniently ingested through a straw. This is the slasher not just closely aped, but also retroactively anticipated and essentialised as postmodern pastiche.
Which means that The Once and Future Smash, directed like End Zone 2 by Sophia Cacciola and Michael J. Epstein, is also a parody, mimicking the now well-established forms of a certain kind of film-focused documentary. For it fits into a small set of metacinematic mockumentaries that include Fabien Delage’s Fury of the Demon (La rage de démon, 2016), Aaron McCann and Dominic Pearce’s Top Knot Detective (2017) and David Amito and Michael Laicini’s Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made (2019), all of which contextualise and analyse films or TV shows that they also entirely invent, conjuring them from a parallel universe built of the collective unconscious and the Mandela effect. These two films, the one an archaised artefact, the other a trumped-up commentary on its shifting reception and falsified afterlife, are a sophisticated confection. However, the ‘extant’ hour of End Zone 2, while certainly capturing the po-faced dreariness of a bargain-basement slasher, looks exactly like what it actually is – a fake. Forget the alarmingly authentic appearance of the stunningly recreated Seventies film-within-a-film in, say, Antrum – here what you get is a bunch of post-millennial actors overtly trying a little too hard to embody a stilted style of the past while walking through sets loosely dressed with historic kitsch. The falsity is foregrounded – but with much of its duration dedicated to a mostly female cast of characters endlessly conversing in perfunctorily written dialogue (accompanied by tone-deaf musical cues) about their high school histories and present traumas (as Heidi Honeycutt comments in the mockumentary, End Zone 2 “may be the first slasher film that actually passes the Bechdel Test”), this is an hour of more (and then more, and then even more) talk than action, while all the horror ‘money shots’ that bind the film to the slasher – while reducing that genre to absurdity – are revealed in the mockumentary anyway. Pace FrightFest where both these films enjoyed their world première in diptych, it is probably better to see End Zone 2 before rather than after the mockumentary that spoils all its best/funniest bits – and perhaps better, if you dislike repetition, not to watch them both so closely together. And while End Zone 2 is now readily available like it never was before, it remains a product likely to go unwatched by any except the most niche of audiences. It is, by any measure, terrible, although obviously there are layers of irony to its terribleness.
The Once and Future Smash is at its best when it allows real filmmakers (Fragasso, Victor Miller, Adam Marcus, Dan Yeager, Todd Farmer, Lloyd Kaufman, Richard Elfman) and actors (Marc Scheffler, Vincent Craig Dupree, Mark Torgl, Mark Patton) – all associated with slashers and their sequels – to discourse on End Zone 2 as though it were an actual film that had influenced their careers and craft, and so to insert a scuzzy piece of fiction into their own, now rewritten cinematic histories. Yet eventually it is overtaken by a plot involving aged actors Mikey Smash (Michael St. Michaels) and William Mouth (Bill Weeden), both of whose only dubious claim to fame is having played the vengeful, monstrous killer quarterback Jimmy Smazmoth (aka Smashmouth) in the sequel – Mikey in its first hour before he was fired from the set, and William (uncredited) in the missing final half hour. As these two old men viciously compete for the masked lead in a new End Zone film, and as Mikey’s assistant A.J. (A.J. Cutler), named – and maimed – by his father after the character A.J. who was Smashmouth’s faithful friend and helper in End Zone 2, must decide where his allegiances truly lie, the mockumentary rapidly swaps sophistication for silliness, while along the way forgetting to be funny. Perhaps some films are better left forgotten – but this remains a unique and original meta double feature.
strap: Sophie Cacciola & Michael J. Epstein’s double feature is both faux grindhouse sequel and mockumentary reassessment
© Anton Bitel