A screaming man painfully peels parasites from his face with pliers in Shivers. Construction-workers run around aimlessly with shaving-cream on their mouths to indicate that they have rabies in / Drink Your Blood. The father of a wholesome family is strung upside-down and burnt alive by a throng of inbred hillbilly cannibals in The Hills Have Eyes. Unsuspecting humans are fed into a suspiciously cardboard-looking "machine" that manufactures cat food in The Corpse Grinders. Do these wondrous things appeal to you? If not, read no further and hire out Terms Of Endearment again and weep on a friend's shoulder. If they do, then get a bunch of like-minded friends together and gross out!
Listed below are nearly 100 Horror/Gore/Fantasy/-Terror videos, all of which are worth checking out if you are interested in the horror genre as a whole. There are approximately 520 horror videos currently available in Australia, with around 25 new releases each month. Here I only briefly discuss the better-known ones and those that do not really require a specialised taste. Once you get through these, there are at least another 270 videos which can open you up to the joys of Z-grade movies, cheap exploitation flicks, gore films, utter cinematic trash and sheer unadulterated terror. (See the Exploitation Videos monthly column.)
In an attempt at some accuracy in what is often a critically-neglected area of film, I have made a basic distinction between Horror and Terror films. The horror films listed below all contain some elements of the fantastic which, when excited by your imagination, are capable of producing a feeling of dread and horror. The Terror films all centre on the possibility and even probability of the depicted events actually happening to you, so you identify with the films' victims (and sometimes villains) being terrorised by something immediate, imminent and immanent.
is more to do with legends, monsters, curses, aliens, psychology, the Devil, ghosts, werewolves, vampires, witches and zombies.
is essentially about knives, lunatics, dismemberments, cars, chainsaws, fires, psychos, castrations, guns, disembowelments and impalings.
I enjoy all these films and I'm overtly negative about only 11 of the movies covered. How much you can take of contemporary horror films is not only determined by your taste in films, but also by your sense of morality, your psychological fears and even, in some cases, your political leanings. Horror movies can often cross the line of so-called decency to offend people (Mary Whitehouse devotees being the best example). On the other hand, these films can fail to please people who enjoy action, suspense, terror, blood-and-guts and a perverse sense of humor (Evil Dead fans being an example of those who demand each new film to go further than the last). I discuss the films below in terms of their cinematic values and how they register as cinematic experiences, rather than from either a dogmatic or die-hard position. Also. I lumped sets of movies together so as to link films — which, after all, is how a genre is formed in the first place. A good horror film is one that leaves you wanting to see another one.
So take your pick and scream your head off —in your lounge-room, nobody can hear you scream . . .
Why not start off with someone who has introduced some truly original elements into contemporary horror genre: David Cronenberg. Quite simply (even though the actual films are incredibly complex), Cronenberg's films centre on our fears of our own bodies, especially our loss of control over them — through sexual parasites in Shivers; through rabies caused by a mutant cancerous growth in Rabid: through the physical externalisation of our deepest and darkest neuroses in The Brood; and through heightened parapsychology in Scanners. All these films are not so much a combining of science-fiction/fact with horror as they are "medicine-fiction" mixed with fantasy to produce an unnerving probability which is truly horrific. Although quite anonymous in appearance, Cronenberg's films feature undeniably unique scripts (by himself) and an uncanny artistry in their direction. If you ever have to start watching your horror videos again, Cronenberg's films will be even more rewarding the second time around
Modern science-fiction films — having given up their fetish for futurism in the early '60s —concentrated more on civilisation in decay throughout the late '60s/early 70s (e.g. Planet Of The Apes, The Omega Man, Zardoz, Soylent Green, etc.). Sci-fi films in the late 70s appeared to take two basic directions: a return to romance and historical periods (a la Star Wars) and a merging with the horror genre.
In 1978. when the alien of Alien ripped out of John Hurt's stomach — that was horror! Isolated in the Nostradamus space-cruiser, the alien became a classic '50s monster set loose in a classic haunted-mansion plot. Definitely a film to watch without interruptions, as the suspense is well crafted by director Ridley Scott (Blade-runner) so as to punctuate the film with plenty of horrific shocks.
Xtro is actually a fairly traditional sci-fi movie except that its plot is so terribly muddled it is difficult to slot it into any one category. Alien transformation scenes are the major horror parts in the film — imagine a woman giving birth to a full-grown male replicant.
Parasite, despite nodding — no, bowing — in the direction of Cronenberg's Shivers (released in Europe as The Parasite Murders), is a remarkable melting-pot of generic strands. Directed, by Charles Band (The Alchemist and Metalstorm) it pushes germ warfare into the future to tell a horrifying tale of a scientist (played by Robert Gladini) who creates two parasites. One lies dormant in his stomach and the other he carries around in a canister so he can experiment on it to find a bacterial antidote that can kill the little bugger. Time is running out too as the Merchants (a mega-multinational corporation that controls the government) are hot on his heels (they want their parasite back) and he is running low on the drug he injects his stomach with so that he can keep the internal parasite dormant. Great stuff.
Invasion Og The Body-Snatchers is an extremely good remake of the Don Seigel classic of the same name from 1955. Directed by Phil Kaufman (The Right Stuff, The Wanderers and Over The Edge to name a few), it creates an ominous mood of paranoia as Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams become increasingly av.are and fearful of the ever-present pod people. Look for original Invasion star Kevin McCarthy in the opening scene and Don Seigel as a cab-driver.
Halloween III: Season Of The Witch has no connection with the previous Halloween films, nor with any other film for that matter. If you hate kids, you'll love this film. The diabolical Cochran, head of Silver Shamrock toy company, markets Halloween masks which — when worn whilst watching the hypnotic Silver Shamrock ad during the Halloween Horrorthon on TV — explode kids' heads into a messy mass of repulsive reptiles. The master-plan is to kill all children and thus put an end to the human race — and it's all done with the electronic media! Despite its unlikely combination of Marshall McLuhan and Ming the Merciless, this wildly convoluted movie is surprisingly probable.
Time to look at another cult king: George Romero. Whereas David Cronenberg's films are ultimately contemporary, Romero's films often deal with modern interpretations of classic horror legends. He is most famous for his trilogy of Zombie films — a trilogy which he announced in 1968 and which just might get finished in 1985. Unfortunately, only the first part is available on video in Australia: Night Of The Living Dead. The second part, Dawn Of The Dead (79), will hopefully be on video soon, and the third-part Day Of The Dead, is still in production as Romero finishes off his 24-part teleseries Tales From The Dark Side.
Anyway, Night Of The Living Dead is as much a modern classic as Hitchcock's Psycho. A low-budget. black-and-white film, it will scare the pants off you — I guarantee it.. Romero's next film was The Crazies which resembles a cheap telemovie but which has some interesting parts. Its conspiracy-plot is a bit tired, with a bacterial virus getting into a small town's water-supply courtesy of a crashed army plane. The town turns into zombies as peace turns into panic. (This film is often mistakenly referred to as the third part of the Zombie trilogy.)
Martin is a very unsettling film. Following the Jungian concept of "I think: therefore I am," the character Martin (played with acuteness by John Amplas) thinks he is a vampire and, in a sexually-confused yet psychotically-rational way, goes about drugging older women, slicing them with razors and extracting their blood with syringes. The heavy calmness of the film makes it definitely not for the squeamish.
But now for some FUN! — Creepshow. Directed by Romero, written by Stephen King (who also stars in one episode) and with makeup effects by Romero's longtime partner in horror, Tom Savini, Creepshow is a homage to the infamous EC. Comics which ran a short life from 1950 to 1954 before being banned by naive and hysterical parental pressure (times haven't changed much). But, boy, were those comics great. Creepshow recreates the ironically-distanced play of terror, suspense and horror that EC were renowned for, making the film a glorious combination of entertainment and horror. Forget your Kideo Classics — kids will really love Creepshow.
As Creepshow finished post-production, pre-production began on The Twilight Zone. Both films are compilations of episodes and both films celebrate mass-cultural forms of entertainment from the '50s, recreating four famous episodes from the successful TV series of the same name. The Twilight Zone features John Landis' witty prologue and epilogue (“You wanna see something real scary?") and his reworking of the The Quality Of Mercy episode; the most mundane and moral segment in the film, Steven Spielberg's Kick The Can, which perfectly evokes the charm of the original episode; George Miller's Nightmare At 20,000 ft. with John Lithgow recreating William Shatner's role with verve; and the pick of the bunch, Joe Dante's It's A Good Life. This episode is full of the off-beam humor that Dante is now gaining wide recognition for. A great parable of kids making adults suffer in a kids' world for a change Not surprisingly. Dante's interpretation totally twists around the original Twilight Zone episode.
The Howling is everything that An American Werewolf In London isn't — a fascinating mixture of horror and humor. (See also Larry Cohen's off-beat horror-comedy Full Moon High, another whacky werewolf movie made in the same year.) The Howling is chock-a-block with Dante's playful perversions and pretensions; pick out the cameos of Roger Corman making a phone-call and Forrest J. Ackerman reading a copy of his own Famous Monsters magazine.
Piranha was Dante's first solo film after his collaboration with Alan Arkush on Hollywood Boulevard (77) and it basically took the terror of Spielberg's Jaws and turned it upside-down into, you guessed it, weird horror. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Piranha II: Flying Killers, which Dante turned down. Directorial chores were picked up by Jim Cameron, who made up for it by later giving us The Terminator (84). Piranha II is one big red herring except for the scene where the fish fly out of the water and attack a poolside party crowd in the neck! Ah, you gotta laugh.
Monsters were the staple diet of science-fiction and horror fans throughout the '50s — which was reciprocated, humans being the staple diet of the monsters. These hungry horrors made little impact in contemporary horror films. Alligator is based upon that famous myth of baby alligators which, after being flushed down toilets, grew to monstrous proportions in underground sewers living on, well, nature's little calling-cards. Scripted by John Sayles (who also scripted Dante's Piranha and The Howling), it's full of laughs strung out over a tightly-knit storyline.
Squirm is an obscure little gem by Jeff Leiberman (Just Before Dawn (80) and Blue Sunshine (77)) which is based on an apparently true story of millions of earthworms taking over a small town in Georgia after a freak electrical storm. Some neat effects and a consistent tempo make this a thoroughly enjoyable movie.
Blood Beach, like Piranha, shoots off from Jaws: "Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the water — you can't even reach it!" Lots of surprises twists here, so I can't say too much except that it is highly recommended. See a woman disappear into the sand, a dog discover that curiosity kills the dog and a would-be rapist gets it where it hurts most. Ouch!
The Deadly Spawn is a well-made, low-budget film that stars an original monster (yeuchh!), a vegetarian mothers' club which accidentally blend some of the monster into their salad (more yeuchh!), and a young kid who proves that being a horror fanatic will save you when you finally do run into a real-life horror.
The contemporary horror film is often a fusion of disparate genres, as modern workings of horror usually depart from the codes laid down by the past classics. Some fusions occur in the strangest ways, such as the films of Larry Cohen. He makes very unusual detective movies — they're just like horror films. His definitive film has to be The Demon which has a plot so dense and multi-layered I dare not give away too much. Tony LoBianco plays a detective who gets a bit worried when normal people suddenly start indiscriminately killing others around them. Their reasons for doing this are the same: "God told me to." Tony's mind has to track down and unravel the most bizarre plot ever — including the second-coming of Jesus, an alien-raped mother, a long-haired hermaphrodite, the Devil, parapsychology and mass hysteria.
It's Alive places the father in the detective role, trying to hunt down his newly-born, very deformed baby (the result of defective pharmaceuticals) who has escaped the delivery room of the hospital — after tearing all the doctors and nurses to shreds. He must find the monster-baby (an early creation by Rick Baker of Thriller fame) before the police kill it and before it smashes, any more milk-trucks.
Q: The Winged Serpent is a straightforward loonie-on-the-loose story, except that the loonie in this case is Quetzalcoatal, a giant winged serpent summoned by Aztec incantations which involve ceremonies of sacrificing victims by skinning them alive. Michael Moriarty tries to hold New York City to ransom as he knows where the serpent's nest is (in the Chrysler building!) and David Carradine plays the detective desperately trying to make sense out of all the sightings of flying serpents and all the skinned bodies popping up in hotel rooms all over the city. All scripted and directed by Cohen, these films are real puzzlers.
Although a well-made film, Q does bear more than a passing resemblance to Wolfen, where the Aztec accent is replaced by the Indian influence. Based on Whitely Streiber's novel (author of The Hunger), Wolfen involves Albert Finney as an unbelievably slobby detective tracking down Amerindian werewolves. Some sharp photography and sound-recording add to Finney's fine performance. The mysticism of the American Indian continues in Prophecy and The Manitou. Prophecy is part ecological horror, part Indian legend, always remaining a mystery as to whether chemical waste-dumping or cultural spirits are responsible for the Tom Burman-designed giant-hairless-fleshy-grizzly-bear that rips up people in search of its stolen "baby."
The Manitou features a great comic performance by Tony Curtis underscoring the fairly menacing mood that prevails throughout the movie. More gory "baby" births: this time a woman hatches a deformed Indian midget from a lump on her neck which ends up being the physical reincarnation of a 400-year-old evil medicine man, Misquamacus! The Manitou was directed by William Girdler, who directed Grizzly in 1976 (shades of Prophecy?) and who in the early 70s was a key figure, along with Larry Cohen, in Blaxploitation flicks.
There is, however, one monster that could destroy all monsters — John Carpenter's The Thing. Created by yet another wizard of mind-boggling makeup effects, Rob Bottin, this Thing performs all its hideous transformations right in front of us, unlike the original classic from 1951 upon which this version is based. Kurt Russell plays it as cool as he plays it in other Carpenter films like Elvis (79) and Escape From New York (81). The Thing is sheer terror with some of the most horrific scenes ever committed to celluloid.
The terror continues in The Fog in a very scary, very creepy story. The cutlass-wielding leper pirates reduce us to wide-eyed wimps like the children transfixed in the opening sequence. Adrienne Barbeau (Creepshow, Escape From New York, Swamp Thing and John Carpenter's wife) survives the terrifying experience to resume her job as laid-back DJ in the coastal town's lighthouse.
Christine is a bit of a low-point in Carpenter's career (Stephen King's plots in films are, I feel, only rendered suspenseful by inventive direction, such as DePalma's working of Carrie; Hooper's working of Salem's Lot; Kubrick's working of The Shining; and Cronenberg's working of The Dead Zone), but at least the film has a star in the form of a beautiful red 1958 Plymouth Fury. When that car gets possessed it really goes to town.
Lots of inanimate objects get possessed in horror films. Stephen King's innovative twist of a possessed car is a welcome departure from that most possessed of objects — the house. The Amityville Horror tried to fool us with its corny "true story" line. Hands up those who went and saw it came out — I did! A few standard frights, an OK performance by Margot Kidder and a beard by James Brolin.
Amityville II: The Possession focuses the possession of the house more on the elderly teenage son who hears weird voices suggesting weird things to him via his Walkman. The family is ripened throughout the first half of the film so that they can all be blow away in a spectacle of splatter in the film’s end.
Poltergeist received a mixed critical response when it came out, no doubt to it being Tobe Hooper-goes-Disneyland. Effects upon effects upon effects make this reasonably tame, but in its favour it expands on the satirical jabs at modern suburban life which made the first half of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind so entertaining.
The Shining was severely criticised by many horror fans who didn't like the idea ol ‘art directors’ tampering with their sacred ground. (Herzog's Nosferatru (79) and Ken Russell's Altered States (80)). But The Shining is a powerful and artistic construction with some stunning camerawork and set to an unusually effective selection of 20th century avant-garde music – not to mention some powerhouse acting by both Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall.
Ruby is a good example of everything that The Shining isn't but, paradoxically, it is just as good nonetheless. Imagine The Exorcist set in a drive-in! One man is shoved into a drink-dispensing machine which then pumps blood instead of Coke, and another guy is impaled onto the drive-in screen by flying speakers on poles. Nothing that exciting ever happened in all the times I went to the drive-in!
Ghost Story is very much a deliberately ‘classical’ film: lots of old actors (Fred Astaire, John Houseman, Melvyn Douglas and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) and a spooky tale told more with eloquence than terror, although Dick Smith's makeup effects ensure that the sophisticated veneer of the film gets at least a little messy at times. (Apparently lots of scenes were cut out in the final edit.)
And last but never, ever least, the film that throws all the ground rules of Possession out the window — Evil Dead. "The only way their possessed bodies can be destroyed is by total dismemberment." Strictly not for vegetarians. Just as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the ultimate terror film, Evil Dead is the ultimate gore film. Eyes pushed back into their sockets by squelching fingers! A zombie-demon getting stabbed in the hand — and then biting her own hand off! The world's sharpest black-lead pencil drilled into an ankle! A decapitated head which spurts the biggest amount of goo, muck and gore you'll ever see! This film is a living nightmare in a butcher's shop! Without recommending this film too highly, all I can say is that you must see it.
Steve Raimi's Evil Dead came out the same year as another 16-mm instant cult film, Frank Henenlotter's Basketcase. Considerably more flawed than Evil Dead, it is really worth seeing for its peculiar story concerning Duane, who carries around his mutant, deformed half-brother (literally speaking!) Belial, who was severed from him when they were young and joined at the waist. Duane carries around Belial in a basket, feeds him Big Macs and hangs out in dive hotels in 42nd Street. To top it all off, they can telepathically communicate to each other.
Telepathy, telekinesis and parapsychology all entwine in Brian DePalma's Carrie and The Fury. Carrie repeated the commercial success of DePalma's Sisters (74), this time with a riveting performance by bug-eyed, flat-haired Sissy Spacek, who tells her prom crowd in no uncertain terms: "Nobody leaves this room!" Great supporting performances are delivered by Nancy Allen (DePalma's wife for a few films) and John Travolta.
The Fury went virtually unnoticed, which is strange considering that it features what is probably the first on-camera explosion of a whole body in its searing finale. Scanners' exploding head scene certainly nods in this direction. The DePalma touch (often in the guise of a Hitchcock hammer) is more subtle in The Fury than some of the protracted scenes in Carrie, making it both a better example of DePalma's work and a better movie all round.
Many aspects of exploitation films remain largely unnoticed by the public ‘at large’ until they get pumped into the mainstream cinema. William Friedkin's The Exorcist, based on William Peter Blatty's then-controversial novel, has a firm place in film history as being a gory/horror/terror film. But the fact is that it's notorious mainly because it was the first splatter movie many people had seen — and was probably their last, unless they stumbled into other mainstream-splatter films such as Bonnie & Clyde, Taxi Driver and Scarface.
The Exorcist is a great movie in its own right, but the point is that it is equally worthy of an hysterical reaction as any number of other underground/independent/cult/ exploitation movies. If anything, The Exorcist proved that we are all closet Catholics. Veteran Dick Smith gained major recognition with his resourceful makeup in this film — not to mention the huge bill he ran up using Campbells' Split Pea soup!
Incubus tried to out-gross The Exorcist with its story of a reincarnated devil rapist, but all it really manages to do is say the word "sperm" more than 17 times.
Fear No Evil sucked me in when it first came out because it was the first film to combine Punk and New Wave with satanism and anti-Christ. The anti-Christ is, in fact, a wimpy schoolkid who dresses in black (something that is "real weird" to the rest of the daggy straights at school) and finally reveals himself on his 21st birthday during the middle of an Easter Passion Play. The people think it's the second coming. Fools! Top marks for the scene where a punk pushes the wimp (alias the anti-Christ) too far — and is given breasts for his trouble. All right!
From the Devil to all his girlfriends — witches. Italian director Dario Argento did two masterful witch films, Suspiria (the witch of sighs) and Inferno (the witch of tears). Supposedly they are part of a trilogy which is vaguely outlined in Inferno (three witches guard the three gates of Hell in three buildings in Germany, the United States and Italy) but some confusion arises around the film which actually carries the name of the third witch — Tenebrae, the witch of darkness — but that film has nothing to do with the supernatural. Despite this confusing false alarm, the third part of the trilogy will happen soon enough, according to Argento. Perhaps Argento's trilogy is an oblique homage to Romero's unfinished trilogy, considering that Argento actually produced Romero's second installment, Dawn Of The Dead.
Both Suspiria and Inferno have breathtaking photography and art direction complemented by a finely-attuned sense of rhythm in the masterly editing plus fast-paced neo-classical rock by Goblin (Suspiria) and Keith Emerson (Inferno). Both films should be watched by you, yourself alone, in the dark and without interruptions. Special effects on Inferno were handled by Mario Bava, the Italian ancestor to the stylistic work of Argento. Mario has over 24 films to his credit as director in the horror genre which in some way influenced Argento's post-Gothic style of suspense.
Unfortunately only four or so Bava films are available on video in Australia, but definitely worth checking out are Beyond The Door II and Baron Blood. Behind The Door II is a world apart from the first Beyond The Door (75), which is no more than a tacky Exorcist rip-off starring Juliet Mills no less! Beyond The Door II (which is its American re-release title, its original European title being Shock) has a rich European flavor in its visual style and, even if it isn't scary. it's great to look at.
Baron Blood is heavily based on the monstrous mise-en-scene of the Hammer productions of the same time and the slightly earlier Gothic productions of Roger Corman, but both these studios owed a lot to the European cinema anyway. See Joseph Cotten play two parts and Elke Sommer scream nearly as much as Marilyn Burns in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre — and that's a lot of screaming!
The perennial star of Australian dusk-to-dawn drive-in screenings finally makes it onto video. Lucio Fulci makes, on average, two films a year, and has been doing so since 1962. His films, no wonder, look like they were made in a week and borrow about 87 per cent of their plot from American films that were released the previous week. Fulci's standard trick is to open the film with two or three shots of the streets of some big American city and then suddenly shift the story to a deserted house, a deserted island or a deserted studio. He is also the baron of bad dubbing, but that can easily be stomached with an acquired taste. His most positive claim to fame is his title of King of Spaghetti Splatter.
Far from the style of Bava or Argento. Fulci lets it all hang out — intestine-chewing zombies (Zombie Flesh-eaters); a girl who vomits up her entrails whilst her eyes bleed (City Of The Living Dead); an eyeball-popping struggle in the basement of a mouldy mansion (The Beyond); an axe right through the middle of a skull (The Black Cat); a body dragged down stairs by the feet with the head banging on each step (The House By The Cemetery); and a cast of a hundred spiders ripping a man's face to shreds (Possessed).
All these films can be downright tedious but they occasionally (or accidentally) come clean with some stylish camerawork and inventive gore scenes. I don't know why, but I am attracted to the work of Lucio Fulci — the Franco Cozzo of the cinema. Check him out, because of the hundreds of films he churns out. he's bound to have something to please you.
Out of the midst of pseudo-sensationalist documentaries on non-Western civilisations (Ecco, Mondo Cane, Last Cannibal World, Man From Deep River, Woman From Deep River, Primitives, Sweet And Savage, Shocking Asia, etc.) comes one on the over-civilised West: America. The Killing of America is an historical look at America's greatest pastime — murder. Fortunately for the film, the information given and the footage presented are so strong that they are immune to any sensationalisation. See Kennedy go pop, Son Of Sam smile and Sam The Sidewalk Sniper be cool. If you think that horror and terror films since the mid-'70s have been going too far, check out their cultural heritage in The Killing Of America.
The ultimate. Banned in Australia for close to seven years, its final release was a let-down for many gore enthusiasts who were expecting offerings of offal with splattered blood and splintered bone. Great expectations, but the film is quite different in nature as its excesses lie in its unrelenting terror rather than any penchant for the human anatomy. Cinematic terror can control the mind's eye over and above eyesight — something that director Tobe Hooper (Deathtrap (76), Salem's Lot (79), Fun House (81) and Poltergeist (82)) knows only too well. The plush carpet of peeled skin, the custom tailoring of Leatherface's attire and the table-manners of the family of ex-slaughterhouse workers all terrorise our imagination more than any amount of graphic blood-letting ever could.
Dario Argento has often been called the Italian Hitchcock, a moniker befits his deft combining of visual suspense and stylistic killings. Tenebrae, his latest film to date, harks back to his first major international success, Deep Red, which comes from the body of giallo films he made in the early 70s: The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (69), Four Flies On Grey Velvet (71) and Cat-O-Nine-Tails (70). Both Deep Red and Tenebrae have lots of color, great camerawork, skillful editing and riveting musical scores, not to mention many teeth-gritting murders that reveal all.
The Hitchcock legacy continues with Brian DePalma over on America's east coast. Sisters is an out-and-out homage to Hitchcock and just as powerful, though Hitchcock would probably not have had a woman stab a man repeatedly where it hurts most and then have him die slowly as he scrawls "Help" on a window in his own blood. Dressed To Kill is a very sophisticated film which poses the question: when is an exploitation film an art film? Or vice-versa? Angie Dickinson "as beautiful as ever" (she uses great-looking stand-ins) unfortunately doesn't live too long in this film which catapulted her back into the Beverly Hills limelight for a few months. But then again, most people don't live too long in a DePalma movie, anyway.
History lesson time: John Carpenter's Halloween — which concentrated more on a tight script, suspenseful camerawork and sound-recording and pleasing character performances rather than worrying about its low budget — has been the inspiration for many B-producers (to make money) and B-directors (to scare audiences). Never has one film spawned so many pale imitations. This original slasher flick leaves the rest for dead. Halloween II (produced by John Carpenter and Debra Hill and including gory scenes re-shot by the uncredited Carpenter) breaks a few threads of logic but manages to still make you scream. When you stick Halloween and Halloween II together they cover a period of only 24 hours: the day and evening of Halloween in Halloween and the rest of that night in Halloween II. Talk about condensed terror! All right I will. Jamie Lee Curtis (daughter of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh) made Halloween in 78, Prom Night in 79, Terror Train in '80, and Halloween II in '81.
Spread out! Make room! Out of all those pale imitations, Friday The 13th went way over the top to become the antithesis of Halloween, in other words: 2 per cent plot, 2 per cent characters and 96 per cent mindless murder, titillating terror and vivid violence. And by jove, the formula works! Director Sean Cunningham (producer buddy of Wes Craven in the early 70s) pulls out all the stops and goes into override with this infamous scream-fest. Friday The 13th Part 2 starts to get a bit campy — heads in fridges, arrows in eyes, machetes in wheelchairs — but it's a lot better than the banality of Part 3 which tried to parody itself with a corny handling of 3-D. Friday The 13th — The Final Chapter will be on video soon enough, which is worth checking out for the return of the makeup maestro of messy murders, Tom Savini (he did all the cutting and dicing in Friday The 13th) Jason lives? Not really, but sequels certainly do.
Blood is always thicker than water, and the beginning of the '80s saw the terror genre get even thicker. Ulli Lommel handles terror quite well in The Boogeyman and The Boogeyman II with a few decent plot twists (and throat twists, too). I single him out because he has made a few half-decent films in this sub-genre. Most directors do one film and then get lost in this intricate networking of sub-genres: Spam-ln-The-Cabin, Stalk & Slash, Gore, Splatter, Slasher, etc. If you like seeing wholemeal kids getting made into mincemeat, all the films listed above do it with varying degrees of panache.
Most of these films are entertaining for the six to twelve inventive murders which teach us worthy moral lessons: how not to spin-dry your clothes whilst wearing them (My Bloody Valentine); how not to lift weights that are too heavy for you (Happy Birthday To Me); and how not to check into a hospital with a madman running around loose in it (Visiting Hours).
Midnight is a minor gem. Scripted and directed by John Russo (author of Night Of The Living Dead), it borrows heavily in atmosphere from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre but is able to remain effective.
Fade To Black has "cult" written all over it, but it is nonetheless a horror tragedy in the Frankenstein mould. The performance by Dennis Christopher as Cody Jarret (a.k.a. Eric Binford) is superb. Look out for Australia's own Linda Kerridge — as if you could miss an expatriate Marilyn Monroe impersonator anyway! Special honorable mention here goes to Linda Blair — she puked pea soup in The Exorcist, skated clumsily in Roller Boogie and ended up being terrorised in fancy-dress in Hell Night. In the field of exploitation movies, that is real class.
And last and perhaps least: Maniac, with makeup effects by Tom Savini and starring the sleaziest actor in modern exploitation movies, Joe Spinelli. Joe plays the maniac of the film's title with great subtlety — he scalps women, plasters their scalps and clothes on dummies and affectionately talks to them in his dingy residence below a sports stadium. He teams up with the ultimate cardboard heroine of the British fantasy cinema, Caroline Munroe. She dresses as bad as she acts, but together, they're marvelous. So marvelous. in fact, that ...
… they teamed up again in The Last Horror Film. Here we reach an area in the terror genre that is primarily motivated by a (perverse) sense of humor and an ironic reflection on the place of anarchy and death in everyday life. The Last Horror Film is 80 per cent Taxi Driver with Joe Spinelli playing a loonie who wants to go to Cannes (yes, Cannes!) to make the ultimate horror film. Lots of laughs and lots of jabs at the liberal/bourgeois/social comment/art cinema. Even Joe's real mum is in the film always asking him if he wants some more baked macaroni. The twist ending is a real hoot, too.
Mother's Day is a very grim film that, with great humor, portrays two nutty hillbilly brothers whose sole experience in life has been television. The brothers, Ike and Addley, personify concerned parents' biggest nightmare: total media brainwash. Ike and Addley think the world is like a Daffy Duck cartoon, and treat people accordingly. Their appropriate demise? An electric carving knife where it hurts most and Draino down the mouth.
Motel Hell is more obvious with its humor than Mother's Day, making it more of an absurdist black comedy than anything else. Rory Calhoun proves that some Hollywood actors/actresses can change well with the times as he plays his role of a human meat-farmer with relish — not to mention pickle and eleven different secret herbs and spices.
Alone In The Dark is a real plum. Brilliant character performances by Donald Pleasence, Martin Landau and Jack Palance flesh this film out into a suspense-terror with plentiful satirical digs at modern psychology, modern families and modern music. The final scene says it all. Jack Palance — as a real crazy — ends up in a New Wave club watching The Sick Fucks on stage performing "Chop Up Your Mother." A young girl comes up to him and makes a few wise-cracks after which he holds a gun up to her throat. She fondles the gun, throws her head back and laughs: "You're sick!" Jack Palance looks at her, looks around him and slowly smiles. A happy ending: madness in society equals a society of madness.
I don't wish to say much about this movie here (having already covered it some depth in Cinema Papers Dec. 84 and considering that a very worthy piece on the film appears elsewhere in this issue) apart from the fact that it is a very disturbing, very perplexing and very complicating film. No debate on violence against women as entertainment can be complete without viewing this film. A harrowing experience to sit through but it offers more potential for discussing the social issues it addresses than any cruddy pseudo-liberal television documentary.
O.K. What's the bloodiest, goriest, grossest, sickest film on video? The envelope please. And the winner is The Incredible Torture Show (T.I.T.S.) - re-released in 1982 as Bloodsucking Freaks. Anal dart-boards, brain milk-shakes, freshly-plucked eyeballs, ear-eating caged virgins and a hot dog made from a — well, use your imagination. I kid you not — you are warned.
I really do love exploitation films, but sometimes we're all short-changed. The films I now list have their moments but generally they are full of cop-outs, false-alarms, shortcomings and red herrings.
Cujo recalls a friend's description of Stephen King being the Harold Robbins of Horror. Interesting concept using a St. Bernard as the traditional maniac figure, but his wagging tail and trifle-covered face just don't cut it. Psycho II is a film that should never have been made. It totally lacks the sense of perversity needed to carry out such a daring strategy as producing a sequel to Hitchcock's 1960 classic.
Spasms and Venom should be sent to the vivisection lab — both films involve banal plots around which are entwined monstrous snakes that rip people open. Oliver Reed gets a black mambo where it hurts most in Venom and Dick Smith supplies some effective bladder work in Spasms, but otherwise these films have no bite. X-Ray is a good example of how to turn suspense into tedium. Barbi Benton (Hugh Heffner's old girlfriend) is menaced by everyone's eyes (and that's all!) in what could have been a modern parable of America's National Health but which in fact is about as exciting as getting your tonsils out. Humongous proves that sensitivity is way out of place in the Slasher sub-genre. Sepia-toned photos, tinkling piano music, and soft-focus slow-motion photography work against what could have been a much better movie.
And finally, it's always back-to-school time with films like Massacre At Central High, House On Sorority Row, Pieces and Splatter University. Massacre At Central High attempts to be logical, but it's as sloppy and loose as the flared-trousers throughout it. House On Sorority Row, similarly, has many loose threads, though the head-in-the-toilet scene is pretty good. Pieces and Splatter University are more to the point and could have probably picked up more bucks for their budget if they had approached Wiltshire and Black & Decker to sponsor them. Both films are messy — very messy.
Pieces, however, finishes with the most typical finale of a cheap exploitation movie. For absolutely no reason at all, a dead body reaches up and rips into Edmund Purdy (another Hollywood old boy still going strong) where? Why, where it hurts most, of course. You pays your money and you gets what you gets.