The screenwriters have always cheerfully exploited social anxieties to raise the tension in horror films. The Zombie Apocalypse of 1968 by George A. Romero, night of the living dead, drew famous parallels with the racism and violent social unrest of the time, for example. But before and since, dozens of horror films have demonstrated that the greatest cultural fears of an era can inspire good bloody movies. Across the United States in the 80sthe talk show hosts, tabloids, televangelists, and self-proclaimed moralists of the day declared all-out war against what they perceived to be an imminent threat to American decency: heavy metal.
Metal certainly wasn’t the only bogeyman of the 80s, but it was by far the most engrossing, with an army of lustful, painted, and highly sexualized musicians pumped relentlessly into homes around the world (thanks, MTV !). groups like Motley CruePoison, WASP, skidrow and others did little to downplay the condemnations, elevating their “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” ethos to heroic new levels. Baseless rumors of Satanic cults committing human sacrifice and ritual sexual abuse have fueled the now debunked phenomenon known as Satanic Panic, with metalheads accused of being the Dark Lord’s most committed emissaries. In response, Senator Al Gore’s wife Tipper co-founded the Parental Music Resource Center (PMRC), which advocated aggressive censorship of metal and hip hop. Their efforts primarily included the arbitrary inclusion of parental warning labels on albums they deemed morally offensive.
Dee Snider from Twisted Sister, along with other popular artists of the time, testified in congressional hearings against the PMRC’s growing encroachment on free speech and the dangers of censorship. Meanwhile, Judas Priest was dragged through a gauntlet of defamation when they were taken to court on charges of using backmasking (embedding secret messages hidden in LPs that can only be heard when they are played backwards) to encourage two fans to commit suicide. They were acquitted of all charges.
In short, it was an ideal landscape for a low-budget, metal-themed horror movie called charity please. Writer Rhet Topham said the 1986 film was sold on one line: “Kid plays the record backwards to unleash a vengeful ghost rocker.”
The film’s stereotypical setup centers on Eddie Weinbauer: an alienated, metal-loving teenage outcast played by Marc Price. Eddie’s crush, Lisa, is conveniently dating Tim, the school jerk. Tim and his friends ruthlessly bully Eddie throughout the early stages of the film, which we know won’t end well for them because, well… bullies tend to get away with it very, very badly in horror films.
Things get interesting when Eddie’s musical idol, a depraved metalhead named Sammi Curr, dies in a hotel fire. Played by Tony Fields, Sammi looks like a cross between Nikki Sixx and Tim Curry’s Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Private, Eddie seeks solace from a local DJ (played by cowboy hat-wearing Gene Simmons), who takes pity on the boy and gives Eddie a copy of the last record Sammi ever recorded. . It’s a unique demo that the DJ will play on Halloween day at midnight.
When Eddie comes home and plays the demo, it starts playing backwards on its own, with creepy demonic messages pouring into Sammi’s voice. Just like that, Sammi travels from beyond the grave, through the stereo and into Eddie’s world in the guise of evil electrical forces. At first glance, this is a good thing. Under Sammi’s tutelage, Eddie takes revenge on the bullies and catches the girl. But the carnage doesn’t stop there, and as the bodies pile up, Eddie realizes that Sammi is a murderous entity out to destroy the world. From there, it’s a bloody race to get the metallic genie back in the proverbial bottle before the DJ plays the demo on the radio, unleashing Sammi’s evil spirit into every boombox in town.
The performances are delightfully OTT, with Sammi Curr drawing inspiration from every Sunset Strip hair metal cliche ever captured on video. Blackie Lawless was reportedly offered the role, but he declined, not wanting to sync music written for Sammi. Sammi’s music and the film’s soundtrack were provided by Fastway, the 80s hard rock supergroup formed by Motorhead guitarist “Fast” Eddie Clarke, UFO’s Pete Way and vocalist Dave King, who later struck gold as the frontman of Celtic-punk juggernaut Flogging Molly. Fastway released the soundtrack as their third album, and the songs are precisely the kind of vapid, boozy punches you’d expect from the height of the glam metal era.
Like a time capsule from the 80s, charity please is hard to beat. In a news clip in the film, Sammi is shown testifying before Congress in defense of her music, to the Dee Snider, and he later bites off a snake’s head: an unequivocal nod to Ozzy Osbourne biting off a dove’s head in 1981. It’s no coincidence that Ozzy also makes one of his more polished film cameos, playing a dour, moralizing televangelist. The producers reportedly asked Ozzy to play at will for 45 minutes and choose the best tracks for the final edit. Sammi Curr even has a little demon mascot similar to Iron Maiden’s Eddie The Head: named Skeezix, he appears in a fleeting but utterly epic scene.
Shot on a budget of $3.5 million, first director Charles Martin Smith was given a tight deadline: producers wanted the film to be shot and released in less than a year, with a release date of October 24, 1986. Smith and his team hit the bull’s eye, and the film did relatively well, grossing nearly $7 million at the box office. Nonetheless, it was well below the commercial highs of mainstream horror films, and no sequels were ordered.
It’s a shame because, overall, charity please is acres of fun. corny as hell? Absolutely. But, the film masterfully sends the pearl hysteria of its time, filled with real-life titles, actual metal gods in cameo roles, and plenty of laughs of the intentional and unintentional variety. It’s not, as some initially assumed, an indictment of heavy metal, but thoroughgoing censorship: a theme that still resonates strongly nearly forty years later. Sadly, the film hasn’t yet received the extras-packed retrospective release it so richly deserves, but it’s well worth inviting your crew over, tossing some popcorn, and enjoying this mindlessly entertaining slice of horror. 80s vintage.