It Came from the Camcorder: Cards of Death

It’s not uncommon in the world of SOV horror to discover that the movie one is watching was not released until many, many years had passed from its production. In general, these are bargain-basement movies, the final result of which may leave its makers and distributors leery of release. In other words, sometimes a movie is such shit that it gets stuck on a shelf and all-but forgotten about. Such is the case with Cards of Death, which sat unreleased for 28 years before Mondo Video dug it up. From 1986, Cards of Death is a horror/thriller from veteran Burbank actor Will MacMillan. Taking his first stab at writing and directing, MacMillan crafted a very bad, but also quite watchable, shitty movie from little more than videotape and breasts.

MacMillan plays policeman Captain Twain, who is investigating of string of murders that plague the city. The opening scene sets MacMillan up as the star of the film, right until a supporting character slices his nose off. Soon, viewers see Twain’s nose, along with some fingers, mailed to one of the actual stars of the film, Shamus Sherwood as police detective Gunny Gunther. He is outraged when forensics identifies the severed body parts as belonging to Captain Swain, and vows to hunt his killers down. He tells Twain’s son, artist Billy (Ron Kologie), of his father’s death, and Billy takes it upon himself to aid Gunny in his quest for justice. So, who, exactly, was Captain Swain investigating?

It turns out, the bad guys are the hosts of the most intense Wednesday night card game in town. Four masked men sit in on the game every week. The winner goes home with half a million bucks, while the loser becomes the murder victim the cops have been finding every Thursday morning. The game is played using tarot cards, and the rules are incomprehensible, but that doesn’t matter. The point is to produce dead bodies for the movie, which the game does.

The game is hosted by one of the more delicious bad guys one will see in a movie of this quality, in Hog Johnson (Robert Rothman). Hog is a true sadist in every sense of the word. He likes seeing people suffer, and it’s even better when he is the one inflicting the pain. Cards of Death VHS boxHe’s also a rapist, which is all a moviemaker needs to do to establish a bad guy’s bona fides in the Missile Test household. We like seeing that kind of scum get theirs.

Hog is assisted in the game by a stable of whores whose job is to keep the players happy right up to the moment when the loser meets a grisly end. Foremost in the group are Cat (Carlissa Hayden), who deals the cards, and Tracy (Tawney Berge) who might be even more of a sicko than Hog.

Viewers get to see these baddies ply their trade on the city’s unfortunate gambling addicts — those desperate enough to risk it all for a payday. One of the players is even a Catholic priest!

Gunny and Billy manage to find out about the game, and slip Billy in as one of the players. The movie, then, proceeds to a predictable conclusion, while providing even more blood and guts for the viewer.

Of storytelling note is the effort Gunny and Billy have to go through to uncover the card game. Presumably, Captain Swain already did all this work, as he was confronting Hog Johnson in the very first scene of the movie. We viewers are supposed to believe that Captain Swain kept all the information about his case in his head, and left no file detailing his findings for Gunny and Billy to refer to. It’s a plot hole that destroys every ounce of this movie’s credibility, but also makes for epic shitty moviemaking.

The scenes with Gunny and Billy are straight out of 1980s buddy cop flicks, only without the action and repartee of a Lethal Weapon. What we get in this movie is more along the lines of a Wings Hauser thriller.

The general consensus is that Cards of Death is a horror movie, and I’ll accede to that, but barely. I find this movie to be much more of a thriller and detective story. The difference in quality is vast, but Cards of Death is a horror flick in the same way The Silence of the Lambs is a horror flick. It has a memorable bad guy and buckets of blood, and yet…

What makes this movie right for Missile Test is its true shittiness. The card game set looks like it was shot in a basement. In some shots the floor is covered by black plastic and I have to think it’s because the building’s super wouldn’t let the production go ahead if they messed up the floor with all their fake blood.

MacMillan chose to add a little atmosphere to these basement scenes, using the same dripping water sound effect for every scene that takes place there. In case one didn’t get it, it pounds home that these scenes take place in a dank basement. Hear the dripping? Hear it?!

Where MacMillan really got his money’s worth, in a production that didn’t look to have two nickels to rub together, was in his actresses’ willingness to get naked. There’s nary a female member of the cast who doesn’t bare their chests for this mess, and it is much appreciated — anything helps.

More watchable than I expected, Cards of Death is a questionable addition to the Horrorshow, but a welcome one to the Shitty Movie Sundays Watchability Index, where it displaces Taureg: The Desert Warrior at #190. Not bad for a flick disowned for almost three decades.

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