Published on March 15th, 2017 | by Richard Gary0
Surf’s up! Killer Waves is the latest in horror and schlock from director James Balsamo, in which the murderous Unholy Diver makes a skin surfboard.
Most directors have a shtick. Some call it auteur, but when you’re dealing those who tend to dispense comedic horror, each has their own thing, be it gender politics, absurdity with a sharp wink towards its own genre, or relying on a body of knowledge about the history of horror. For James Balsamo, it’s – for lack of a better word – the pun. Hell, he even has a book out of this kind of word play (Total Pun-ishment).
Balsamo’s film are often self-depreciating (he gets beaten up in most, usually by some heavy metal musician doing a cameo); he plays the trickster, the hustler, and the – okay – pun-isher. And that’s exactly why he has so many fans.
I love it when killers have a name. Sure Meyers, Kruger and Voorhees are great, but I like the ones with designations like Ghostface, The Subway Vigilante, or the Shropshire Strangler. For this film, we are dealing with the Unholy Diver, someone dressed in a full and antique-style deep-sea diving outfit, including a Robot Monster-like full mask. But instead of a face seen through the helmet, there is a skull.
This is a slasher crime comedy that is all in the fast lane, in that Balsamo’s work is consistently inconsistent. What I mean by that is there are some constants. With the possibly arguable exception of one (I Spill Your Guts, 2012), all of his six features have been loony comedies, some more outrageous than others, but all of them somewhat over the top. That descriptor is, of course, not meant as an insult.
Also, there is a lot of gratuitous nudity, blood and gore (including the red stuff always pouring from mouths), a large body count, or visceral matter separating from the victim, the aforementioned puns, and cameos. Balsamo goes to many genre conventions and gets either musicians or genre cult idols to do brief stints in the film, usually on the street, in an alley, or a convention hallway. Usually they beat him up or say nasty things about his character; yes, that is another thing, Balsamo is nearly almost always the lead in his stories that, again, I don’t really have a problem with that.
Each film has a growing number of actors who appear regularly, such as the wonderful Carmine Capobianco and Genoveva Rossi; then there’s a guy named Frank Mullen who always amuses me, even when he looks like he’s reading cue cards while doing his scenes. His spiel is to go into an angry, curse-filled rant, and I always cheer when he does.
Then there are, again, the puns. Beyond the excruciating ones during the dialogue that make Freddy’s look like Shakespeare (okay, maybe Robert Frost…), even the character names are jokes, such as Katie Crest (get it, a film about waves…), Brian Blackwater, Billy Bermuda, Blue Crush Vicky, and so forth. There are some snarky names as well, such as having both aVicky and a Vicki (“Hi, I’m Vicki with an ‘I’” is how she introduces herself), and Jenny and a Jenni (“Hi, I’m Jenni with an ‘I’”, I kid you not).
The loose (very loose) story is centered around the Killer Waves Surf Contest. The Unholy Diver (I guessed wrong at who it was for a while) is murdering the surfers – and nearly anyone else who crosses its path – in part to make a surfboard make of human flesh; the end products is one of the goofiest things you’ll ever see…again, not an insult. There are any number of ways of dispatching the victims, from various blades to electric eels, and so forth.
If you are familiar with Balsamo’s earlier films, and I recommend that you do search them out, there are quite a few self-references to his work, such as a mention of an Acid Bath (his production company), and someone else wearing a torn version of a Cool as Hell tee. This could be a drinking game. I’m up to my fourth glass of a Lemon Ginger Echinacea ade. Yeah, I’m a wild spirit.
While this was being filmed, I Balsamo was in the process of moving from Long Island, NY, to California, and it’s pretty obvious to tell it was recorded on both coasts. I mean, there are shots on a beach or street with palm trees, mixed with scenes obviously on the streets of Manhattan; during a key cop investigation scene at a dock, the Park City ferry (going between Bridgeport and Port Jefferson, Long Island) passes behind them. Made my Brooklyn-born self smile.
As for inconsistency, well, the story is more of a series of vignettes and bits rather than a cohesive narrative. The core remains the same, about the events surrounding the surfing contest, but each scene (and murder) is more hodgepodge bits than a storyline. Occasionally this can be confusing if not distracting, especially with the improvisational feel of the overall product, but somehow it manages to work. Everything that seems a bit wonky is part of its charm; I don’t really know how to explain it more than that.
If one were to see just this film, it might be a bit of a headscratcher, but in the overall Balsamo canon, if one is familiar with his style and work, it’s more of the inconsistent consistency charm that I was discussing before, just more so. In all honesty, I would like to see more focus on a cohesive storyline. That being said, while it is surface level that never digs too deep in thought or tone, it’s still bloody good amusement.