The 1990s were awash with post-modern slasher fare featuring castaways from DAWSON’S CREEK who were either exhibiting signs of disturbing behavior, screaming about urban legends or claiming to know what you did last summer. When the most intriguing horror film to emerge from this period involved a power-hungry leprechaun kidnapping a princess in order to become ruler of the planet Dominia, only to be thwarted by a bumbling brigade of space marines headed by a mad scientist by the name of Dr. Mittenhand, suffice it to say that many felt that the heydays of horror were long gone.
Salvation for the genre would ironically come not from one of the heralded masters of horror, like George A. Romero or John Carpenter, but from Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider whose bold and revolutionary film STRANGELAND had a resounding message for the aforementioned WB-esque trite on behalf of horror fans around the world – we’re not gonna take it anymore!
STRANGELAND is about a schizophrenic sadist by the name of Captain Howdy (played by Snider) who uses teen chat rooms to lure victims to his house on the pretense that they’re being invited to a party. Once his “guests” arrive, they quickly learn that semantics is a bitch as Captain Howdy’s definition of a party involves torture, body modification and scarification as well as imprisoning his victims in claustrophobic-inducing cages while he regales them with monologues about the hypocrisies of vanilla society.
His latest victims are 15-year-old Genevieve Cage and her best friend, Tiana Moore, who meet Captain Howdy online and are subsequently never heard from again. What’s different about this case is that Genevieve’s father is local cop Mike Gage, who, with the help of a younger cop named Steve Christian and Mike’s niece, Angela Stravelli, manages to track down his daughter’s kidnapper and bring him to justice. Along the way, he discovers Captain Howdy’s torture chamber where to his shock and relief he finds Genevieve alive, albeit naked and bound with her mouth stitched shut.
A year passes and Captain Howdy is found not guilty by reason of insanity and is sent to the Meistrich Psychiatric Institute where he’s diagnosed as a schizophrenic with a severe chemical imbalance. Apparently, that’s a condition that only requires three years of treatment and he’s released with the idea that as long as he’s on medication, he’s not a threat to society. “Christians Against Moral Decay,” an activist group led by Jackson Roth (played by Robert Englund), doesn’t agree with this decision and offers Captain Howdy a welcoming committee in the form of a public lynching. Unbeknownst to the group, the lynching is a failure as Captain Howdy is more than alive; he’s relapsed into his schizophrenic persona and is out for revenge!
STRANGELAND was the shot in the arm that horror really needed at the time. Its bold and unflinching depiction of sex and violence was a breath of fresh air in a genre watered down by pretentious hipper-than-thou scripts featuring hollow characters who rather than sucking you into their story, made it a point to always remind you that you were watching a movie.
STRANGELAND was also a revolutionary horror film insofar as it’s one of the first, if only, genre films to center on the themes of tattooing, branding, body modification, scarification and the tribal rituals associated with these practices. Snider clearly has a love and respect for the body-modification community and it shows through the realistic depictions of the fetishes associated with this group.
Snider also uses the character of Captain Howdy to expound on the hypocrisies of vanilla sex and the immediate association that anyone interested in kink is considered “sick.” Unfortunately, Captain Howdy is in fact a sick schizophrenic whose characterization ultimately thwarts any attempt at credibility Snider may have intended this crusader for kink to have. If anything, Captain Howdy almost serves as a poster child for those who condemn the BDSM community as deviant, leaving you to wonder what the point was of trying to validate an often misunderstood form of sexuality via a character exhibiting all the stereotypical traits of how this community is viewed by vanilla adherents.
At any rate, STRANGELAND has been embraced by the body-modification community and is a fascinating, if sometimes quaint (note the social relevance of teen chat rooms and an appearance by a 56K dial-up modem), film that’s seriously twisted, sister!