Killer kids really started pulsating on the horror radar with The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976). Horrific as these tots were, their actions were explained away by demonic possession and satanic lineage, respectively. Regardless of their cause, the sight of a youngster engaged in heinous behavior was still shocking. Now, roll back the clock a couple of decades and drop a sociopathic eight year old girl in the middle of apple pie strewn Ozzie & Harriet America, and what do you get? The Bad Seed (1956), that’s what; a wonderfully odd ode to li’l murderers and the mothers who love them.
Joe Spinell was a unique character actor in his time. From supporting turns in The Godfather: Part II (1974), Rocky (1976), and beyond, he was never less than interesting on screen; usually playing a mobster, shyster, or cop, his amusingly sleazy demeanour helped him stand out from the crowd. Terror lovers know Spinell from Maniac (1980), the notorious passion project that he also co-wrote. His follow up on the silver scream was The Last Horror Film (1982), a much more lighthearted take on obsession that not only reteamed him with his Maniac co-star Caroline Munro, but jetted them off to The Cannes Film Festival to boot. And while it doesn’t have the gut punch impact of Maniac, it’s the more enjoyable film.
“The boat can leave now. Tell the crew.” With these words, a horror classic was born. Zombie (1979) was the first Lucio Fulci film that assaulted my eyeballs, AND it was the first zombie flick I ever saw. Heady stuff for a quivering ten-year-old, but it proved to be the perfect gateway to the splattery splendors of Italian terror, a door that will forever remain ajar.
With the massive success of Carrie (1976), telekinesis was quickly added to horror filmmakers’ arsenal as a new weapon to terrify audiences. The immense power of the film left some reticent to tackle the subject for fear of falling short; however Brian DePalma stepped up to the plate with The Fury (1978), and that same year fledgling Australian filmmaker Richard Franklin made Patrick, a suspenseful, darkly humorous tale of a nurse and the psychokinetically disposed comatose patient that loves her.
There are few absolutes in life, let alone in the world of horror; but this I find to be true: Herschell Gordon Lewis was appreciated in his time. Beloved, actually. Sadly passing away on September 26th, 2016 at the age of 87, he left behind a slew of grindhouse classics encapsulating everything from biker flicks to sex ed pieces. But HGL will be forever known for a string of unique and groundbreaking horror films including The Gore Gore Girls (1972), his last opus before he took a 30 year sabbatical from filmmaking. And on the HGL spectrum, it’s one of his best.
Blame The Bad Seed (1956) for every murderous moppet that has skipped across the screen in subsequent years. Village of the Damned, The Omen, The Good Son, The Children, and many more have explored the taboo of killer kiddies. One of the oddest of the bunch is Ed Hunt’s Bloody Birthday (1981), a ridiculously fun turn with not just one, but three mini-Mansons on hand to clean up the schoolyard.
A spaceship heads to a remote planet to answer an SOS. Upon arrival on the fog covered world, they discover an insidious alien race that needs warm bodies to propagate their species. Yeah, I love Alien (1979) too! However, the film I’m referring to is Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965), an influential departure for the prolific horror auteur and a gorgeously rendered sci-fi/horror blend.
British horror was still going through a transitional phase by the early ‘70s. Trying to turn people’s perception away from cobweb strewn castles and fog laden swamps, they played in the modern day with such classics as Tales from the Crypt, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, The Vault of Horror, Theatre of Blood, and Asylum. (Okay, those are either anthologies or Vincent Price films, but there are many other goodies as well.) So strong was the vibe that an American made the leap across the pond for his directorial debut, Raw Meat AKA Death Line (1972), a grimy, funny, and surprisingly poignant first effort from Gary Sherman (Dead and Buried).
Dystopia! What a place to be. Well, except when people are mulched to feed an over populated society (Soylent Green) or killed at the age of 30 to control it (Logan’s Run); and in the case of Turkey Shoot (1982), hunted for sport by society’s elite. Come to think of it, Dystopia is kind of a bummer.
Released in its native Australia in October, Turkey Shoot wouldn’t see the light of day in the U.S. until September of ’83 under the title Escape 2000. Both titles work; the former playing into the more lurid elements, while the latter highlights the cut rate sci-fi angle. And it’s the swirling combination of the two that gives this sucker its punch. Turkey Shoot is A class exploitation with a down under smile.
By the mid ‘60s, the glory days of Boris Karloff were far behind him. The gentle giant forever known as the screen’s original (and best) Frankenstein monster was relegated to appearing in disappointing quickies that squandered his immense talents. However, there were some twilight standouts: Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath (1963), a couple of animated delights, How The Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966) and Mad Monster Party? (1967), and his dignified portrayal of an aging horror star in Peter Bogdanovich’s debut, Targets (1968). Nestled in between (and often shown the door) was Daniel Haller’s Die, Monster, Die! (1965), an early, colorful, and fun foray into the world of H.P. Lovecraft.
Although he hasn’t made very many films, Jeff Lieberman is a unique voice in the world of horror. From Squirm (1976) through to Satan’s Little Helper (2004), he’s crafted only a handful of feature length films, each one different than the last. Watching him tackle a different sub-genre is like looking at a new painting by a great artist. Just Before Dawn (1981) is his take on backwoods butcher clans, an inbred cross of Deliverance and Friday the 13th. Everyone should own a Lieberman. This one is mine.
The Dead Zone (1983) is where director David Cronenberg turned from the horrors of the body to the torture of the soul. But before that, he made tentative steps towards adding a layer of vulnerability to his work, in the very personal and frightening The Brood (1979). It’s still rooted in the tactile, but listen closely and you can hear whispers of humanity piercing the skin.
In the 1950s, independent film was just as keen to stick its nose in the atomic blender as the Hollywood big boys. Of course, budget restrictions frequently left most of the monsters wanting, be they big or small. But sometimes a shot of quirk was enough to stand apart from the Tinseltown terrors. I give you Fiend Without a Face (1958), a low budget romp content with showing less until it has to show it all, with giddy results.
Aging much better than a freezer burnt, half eaten cake, Happy Birthday to Me (1981) stands out as one of the better ones from the golden era of slashers, when the major studios weren’t afraid to throw some blood soaked (Canadian) coin at a B level concept, and in the process giving it some A list icing.
Cult filmmaker Larry Cohen is, and has always been, an idea man. Whether commenting on rampant consumerism (The Stuff), religious fanaticism (God Told Me To), or vigilantism (Maniac Cop), Cohen’s films (as director or screenwriter, often both) show an ambition beyond the zippered monsters and flying serpents. And while the biggest caveat regarding Cohen is that his reach often exceeds his grasp, that’s not always true. Case in point: It’s Alive (1974), Cohen’s potent take on abortion, the pharmaceutical industry, and (extremely) unconditional love.