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.
With the advent and huge success of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), studios were quick to hop aboard the killer train. Out were the outsized monsters of the ’50s, in were mama’s boys and socially maligned women dealing with sins of the past. Dementia 13 (’63) and No Way to Treat a Lady (’67) are just a sample of the ’60s horror films that focused on smaller scale, human dilemmas, regardless of how twisted they may be. One film that seems to have been misplaced in the schizoid shuffle is Freddie Francis’ The Psychopath (1966), a lean little thriller that acts as a gateway for one of the most revered European horror sub-genres: the giallo.
Crazy has always tapped a main vein in horror films; if it didn’t we would be stuck watching films of people being pranked or wronged, who laugh it off and become dentists instead (with all due respect to Corbin Bernsen). Now, of particular interest to me is when the sins of the flesh meet that fracture of the mind; where the lascivious and the lurid tangle in sweaty, blood stained sheets. And 1982 coughed up a doozy (in character and content) with Night Warning, a tale of a very protective aunt who doesn’t want to see her nephew leave the nest.
I’ll confess. I have a real mushy soft spot for Heavy Metal music. Back in the ‘80s, in my teen years, my buddy Nick and I would crank the latest from Kiss, Scorpions, Judas Priest, Cinderella, etc. And there’s something specifically about Metal tailored to teenagers – that heightened sense of drama we feel at that age, the hormonal urges, and the need to push back against ‘society’. (Right – but please give us our allowances to consume products, okay?)
But Metal also equated with power, which was aligned with evil, and before long, many parents came up with the notion that Metal was Satan’s music. (Is the PMRC still a thing? Brr.) Well, marketing is marketing, and few Metal bands fought the label (hell, some even embraced it). So it seemed the timing was right for that satanic safe haven, the Horror Film, to meet up with the music of the murderous and profane, Heavy Metal. And thus was born Trick or Treat (1986), a fun time capsule of a very specific period in pop culture.
1978 cast a long shadow in the world of horror. From Dawn of the Dead to Halloween, the landscape was abundant with everything from the socially relevant to the singularly terrifying, from superior remakes (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) to quirky haunted houses (The Evil). And then there’s the red headed stepchild that no one talks about: Brian DePalma’s The Fury. Frenetic, action packed, and gruesome, The Fury never gets the love from even most DePalma fanatics. What a shame – it’s never less than entertaining, and at its best showcases the director’s mesmerizing visual touch.
Horror in the ‘50s tended to lean towards the sci-fi end of the spectrum. And why wouldn’t it? This was the atomic age, and hiding under your school desk during a bomb drill (the safest place to be!) was scarier than any monster Hollywood could muster. So as a form of social moralizing (or an excuse to display giant, mutated lizards on screen), filmmakers merged the fear of nuclear annihilation with the need for entertainment. Most filmmakers, that is. Paul Landres’ The Vampire (1957) is a deliberate ride through the (mostly) human condition, small in scope but surprisingly big on emotion. Just don’t expect any vampires, radioactive, sparkly, or otherwise.