The real independent cinema, the one being championed by skylarking individuals with camcorders and a vision, has its own set of unappreciated auteurs. There’s the guiding light Godard Giuseppe Andrews, able to channel both the trailer park and toilet humor with equal imagination. Damon Packard can’t get his oversized originality out of Spielberg’s sphere of influence and the ‘70s ABC Movie of the Week, while Chris Seaver literally creams over the high concept stupidity of the proceeding Greed decade. Add in the Campbell Brothers and their meticulously crafted homages, and you’ve got quite an impressive list. However, one name needs to be added to this cinematic Mt. Rushes-more - 51 year old Warren F. Disbrow. If genius had a conservative sounding name, it would be this knotty New Jersey savant.
For many in DVD nation, Disbrow first came to geek cult fame with his remarkable Troma Double Feature Flesh Eaters from Outer Space/ Invasion for Flesh and Blood. This pair of alien invasion insanity is highly recommended to anyone looking for cinema that doesn’t cater to the normal or the nuanced. Disbrow’s broad, sweeping, erratic epics are just the tonic for a recreational existence lived in direct to video Hell. Later on, he released the demonic delight Scarlet Moon. If Disbrow was comparable to a jerryrigged genre David Lynch, this movie was Dune. The final product stands as a sensational mishmash of comedy and corpses, devil worship and dumbness. Naturally, aficionados wondered what his next cinematic step would be.
Who could have imagined it would be a combination wistful nostalgia trip and nasty slasher epic? With Haunted Hay Ride, Disbrow delivers a throwback treasure, a splatter filled festival of Fall, friendship, and vivisection. While it may not be as accomplished (or unhinged) as his other films, it does do something that few mainstream movies can claim - it shows a real passion and love of the often misbegotten genre. If anything, Disbrow is horror’s gatekeeper, a man who’s made it his career to collect and care for the many monster movie fear factors that have been tossed aside for more ‘real’ scares. Haunted Hay Ride may sound like a rejection of same, that is, until you realize that with his new serial killer character, he’s simply shifting the paradigm from the paranormal to people.
When we first meet Hate, the scarred figure in the permanently affixed fright mask (that’s right - Disbrow’s villain literally screws his metallic skull face right onto his head via a drill) is teaching his father a deadly thing or two about bad parenting. Soon, he is off to Brock Farms to torture and torment the employees and visitors to the famed title tour. Mr. Brock, an older no nonsense kind of man, can’t believe that his beloved workers are disappearing one by one. Naturally, this raises concerns about the police…and publicity. In the meantime, a pair of on again/off again lovers, along with two of their slacker buddies, take in the last hay ride of the season. Little do they know that Hate is waiting to make this the best, and bloodiest, Halloween ever.
At first glance, Haunted Hay Ride looks like an episode of the classic Scooby-Doo taken to serious, psychotic extremes. Unlike the Saturday Morning spook show from the ‘70s, Disbrow keeps the body count high and the gore plentiful. Fans of flowing bodily fluids will truly enjoy the ample arterial spray here. Some of the F/X are obviously fudged, but a few leave a lasting sense of distress. Hate also cuts a rather impressive swath. While he’s not the beefiest bad guy in the slice and dice spectrum, his unrelenting desire to kill puts him a clever “cut” above. Indeed, there hasn’t been a executioner this obsessed with slaughter since Jason faced off against Freddy.
Disbrow also does something that every fledging fright filmmaker needs to take note of. The Brock Farms location - actual working businesses in Freehold and Colt’s Neck, New Jersey - makes a wonderful backdrop for the action. Local haunted attraction Dracula’s Domain also makes an appearance. But it’s the farm, with its lush grounds, oversized animal statues (including a few animatronic dinosaurs), and acres of wooded trails, that’s a perfect place for a horror movie. There is a real sense of authenticity, a feeling that we’ve actually walked into a family business beleaguered by a rampaging maniac. Thanks to the classic deadpan acting style of Disbrow’s dad, Warren Sr., the Brock enterprise becomes part of our recognizable world. It’s not a lonesome abandoned building or an art director’s fever dream. This helps heighten the suspense.
If Haunted Hay Ride has a flaw, it’s in its victim-ology. Of the foursome we follow throughout the 90 minute running time, none make that much of an impression. Our hero and his gal pal snipe at each other so often that we wish Hate would show up and put them out of each other’s misery, and the dunderheaded duo they chum up to (who go off on a surreal subplot involving an aborted drug deal) are practically opaque as individuals. Luckily, this is counteracted by the employees of Brock Farms. Everyone, from office staff to attraction workers come across as genial, sincere, and very, very real. When they die, we feel a twinge of unfairness. When Hate takes on the leads, we tend to lose interest.
Still, for all its minor shortcoming, Haunted Hay Ride is a great deal of retro-fun. It’s the classic case of a ‘80s Saturday Night, the “take anything” trip to the local Mom and Pop video store that produced as many gems as junk piles. With such a direct-to-video dynamic, Disbrow comes up with a near classic, a film that feels wholly original and yet simultaneously similar to everything that came before. Some will miss his old lunacy, the mixing of ideas and individual beats to create macabre that resembles nothing else in the dread lexicon. But Haunted Hay Ride is pure history, like watching a live action adaptation of Famous Monsters of Filmland. Forgive its little faults and simply enjoy someone who inherently understands the nature of the beast. Warren F. Disbrow deserves a place among other outsider auteurs. Haunted Hay Ride might just guarantee such an appointment.