By GABE THOMAS
The online world has taken much from the living. Studies on how the internet affects our brains will be conducted until our dying days. An endless stream of widely accessible information has mutated, in some corners, into a hive of bigotry home to everyone everywhere. Even considering all of this, it’s still one of our greatest assets. Connectivity is easier than ever, yet it’s important to stay diligent when it’s just as easy to find kindhearted people as it is to encounter the worst of the worst.
In the early days of the internet, users would log onto web pages about topics they were interested in, and peruse chat rooms to meet new friends. These activities could form exciting relationships, or have deadly consequences. Several films in this time period attempted to show the dangerous side of what was then a new and exciting invention. THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR and THE NET showed naive audiences what could happen if they used the internet without being aware of the risks. More realistically, HORRORVISION and PULSE explored how virtual worlds allow us to disconnect from reality.
Monster movies of the 1950s wrestled with the potential fallout of nuclear war, while the hardened sentiments of cynicism surrounding the conflict in Vietnam bled into every fiber of 70s filmmaking. The genre always reflects the cultural fears of the moment, and the internet was an intimidating beast.
Enter Dee Snider’s STRANGELAND. A mostly forgotten 1998 cyber-slasher, this picture details the exploits of “Captain Howdy,” a sadist obsessed with body modification and inflicting pain on others. If there’s a film that exemplifies late-90s internet and alternative culture, this is it. The soundtrack, featuring MEGADETH, SYSTEM OF A DOWN, ANTHRAX, MARILYN MANSON, and other heavy hitters, is absolutely relentless. It plays during violent nightclub raves, or alongside delightfully dated user interfaces adorning clunky white desktops. Every frame of John Pipelow’s film conjures a grimy time capsule of a bygone era.
If the name Dee Snider sounds familiar, he’s the musician best known as TWISTED SISTER’s frontman. He is also the screenwriter for STRANGELAND, as well as its villain. Serving as a bizarre ego project after his group disbanded a decade earlier, Snider lays his heart bare on a blood-soaked silver screen.
There is some sort of ironic statement to be made about a heavy metal star’s attentive involvement in this subject matter. The 1980s saw an infestation of horror flicks detailing the perceived evils of metal music. Films like BLACK ROSES or HARDROCK NIGHTMARE depict these bands as Satanic fronts created to lure in and corrupt the youth. In the same vein, concerned parents began to worry about the impact of the internet on their kids a decade later. Seemingly inadvertently, Snider proves that some things never change.
The film follows detective Mike Gage (named for his actor, Kevin Gage) as he hunts down Captain Howdy (Snider), a serial killer who tracks young women down through online chat rooms. After Howdy kidnaps his daughter (a young Linda Cardelini), the stakes become much more personal. If that premise seems simple, that’s because it very much is.
What follows is an occasionally creative slasher movie, and at other times, incredibly pretentious and needlessly mean-spirited. Captain Howdy’s main gimmick, aside from sharing the same name as Regan’s imaginary friend from THE EXORCIST, is forced body modification upon his victims. Graphic imagery of body piercings, nonconsensual BDSM, and torture are frequent sights in STRANGELAND, mostly taking place upon completely nude actors. It is additionally important to keep in mind these characters are usually, and often referred to as being, underaged.
Sadism on such an intense scale leads to discussions about STRANGELAND’s biggest failure: its desperation to create the next “great horror icon.” Snider has been very upfront about this facet of the film, making it clear that Captain Howdy was meant to be an edgier alternative to the likes of Freddy and Jason. Yet, his crimes are too despicable and the performance is too obnoxious for the average audience. There is nothing relatable or all that entertaining about Captain Howdy, leaving him behind with the DR. GIGGLES and JACK FROSTs of the movie world.
Snider possesses a Jim Morrison-esque presence as Howdy, delivering laborious speeches about the emptiness of death and salvation through pain. It’s the same spiel we’ve heard from Pinhead or Candyman before, only performed by a musician in his first film role. Captain Howdy is also a casualty of his time in that he is horrifically overdesigned. Long red hair paired with tattoos and piercings that cover his face and body, keeping him from being an easy Halloween costume to pull off.
While his turn as the antagonist leaves much to be desired, Snider gets to shine in a section of the film where his character has reformed. After being arrested and rehabilitated, he is returned to the town he once terrorized and begins to turn his life around. It isn’t long before he’s hounded by an angry mob, led by a wonderfully goofy ROBERT ENGLUND. There’s an honest effort here to say something about how ex-convicts are treated after reentering society. Imagery of lynching and police negligence make for an interesting break from the nonstop energy STRANGELAND revels in.
It can be challenging to examine this movie without focusing on Snider, as his larger-than-life personality wholly fuels it. Aside from the central performance, STRANGELAND works as an internet commentary in a few key ways. Mainly, it creates a naturalistic image of how predators use the anonymity of the internet to lure in unsuspecting victims.
By now, we’ve all heard stories of terrifying online encounters. The right lapse of judgment can lead to real-world harassment or worse, but this was hardly proven by 1998. All of the major murders committed with the internet as a tool occurred after the release of STRANGELAND,
adding a prophetic element to this silly horror movie. Scenes of Howdy pretending to be a winter sport-loving college kid in order to trick young girls is upsetting enough on its own, but only becomes terrifying once reality sinks in. Victimization is a key attribute in a digital wasteland, and Snider never lets up on that.
Scenes of rape and sexual torture rank among some of the most grisly you can find in an R-rated movie, and their presentation has aged poorly. In attempting to push the envelope, these agonizing moments take the material way too far and begin ruining any campy fun the rest of the movie offered. It’s difficult to bust this out at a Halloween party when visceral scenes of sexual mutilation (on both men and women) rear their ugly heads every 20-odd minutes.
Despite its flaws, STRANGELAND doesn’t feel as misogynistic as one might assume. While Gage’s daughter is constantly in need of rescue, this is framed more as an issue of age than of gender. Elizabeth Peña stars as the mother, who becomes realistically frustrated and determined as the stakes get higher. A young Amy Smart appears to teach our technophobic lead the way of the web, helping the detectives catch Howdy the first time around. Pipelow’s picture is not in any way progressive (his previous film, JURASSIC WOMEN, can assure you of that), but the absence of distilled sexism adds some watchability.
The legacy of STRANGELAND since the film’s release is fascinating. The movie was a box office bomb, as moviegoers found it derivative and badly acted. This didn’t deter Snider, however, who maintains to this day that he intends on reviving the property. A series of comics began releasing under FANGORIA’s short-lived comic book company, although only the first issue was officially produced. Now, after longing to return as Howdy in a direct sequel, Snider has taken to rebooting the feature sometime in the near future.
Even with the movie’s complete failure, I would be ecstatic to see what Snider could pull off in 2023. Technology has evolved, and the core concept might simply have been ahead of its time. STRANGELAND is a mean, messy little movie, yet it finds its place in the horror pantheon as an ambitious and memorable tale of practical violence, executed in a cartoonish way. There is a tonal imbalance, but an intense amount of passion. Hopefully, Captain Howdy will log on once more.