Homage in film can be a tricky proposition. Hew too close to the original, and you’re just making copies with no new toner; veer too far away and folks will wonder why you bothered. Joe Dante’s Piranha (1978) is that perfect beast then - a Jaws “rip-off” that bows to its source while winking at the audience, and yet still manages to be a wholly separate, wildly entertaining ride.
As a first time filmmaker, it takes a lot of courage to not follow the trends. The early ‘80s were flooded with slashers, and for good reason; they were, for the most part, instant ATMs to the studios. Thank God then (or Satan, your florist, a masseuse, whatever floats your boat) for Frank LaLoggia, a New Yorker in his mid-20s who decided to go epic out of the gate with Fear No Evil (1981), a parable on Good Versus Evil, capital letters, with a strong Catholic bent filtered through Carrie’s prom dress.
Thanks to The Omen (1976) and little Damien’s watchdog, Hollywood figured they could mine some horror from our canine friends, on the assumption that there’s something inherently evil to exploit. Except…they’re not. Are they sometimes vicious? Definitely. But I would hardly call dogs evil, especially ones allegedly in favor with Satan. Which brings us to todays’ Tube, as TV naturally had to take a shot at demonizing our four legged friends, a task at which Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell (1978) fails spectacularly. It is however, a blast and more fun than a bowl full of kibble.
By the early ‘70s, Hammer films was wheezing and sputtering just to stay alive. Their attempts to stay current with the changing tides of horror were often misbegotten and misdirected (Dracula A.D. 1972, anyone?) as the plots continued to recycle shopworn ideas when audiences were ready for more modern concerns, such as hulking maniacs with chainsaws. In essence, time was passing Hammer by, and they were willing to try anything. Hence we arrive at The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974), a delightful elixir of Dracula and…Kung Fu. This was the last gasp for Hammer’s beloved franchise, and it’s a very worthy burial.
Never mind the holidays; dealing with family can be stressful any time of year. Birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, or just a mandatory visit to a forgotten aunt you haven’t seen in 15 years can all hold their share of tension and misery. But at least be thankful you’re not part of the Merrye clan, the family at the center of Jack Hill’s Spider Baby (1967), a quirky yet clever examination of the prototypical horror tribe that influenced the likes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977).
Blaxploitation made its move on the horror market with AIP’s Blacula (1972); so successful was the foray that the money wheels started turning towards a follow up. And while AIP was busy cooking up a sequel to their surprise hit, an outsider saw an opening in the window of the American Dream and leapt right through. Frank Saletri may have been a lawyer by trade, but his heart belonged to horror and he gave his all to write and produce Blackenstein (1973) – a movie somewhat better than its godawful reputation, restored for posterity on Blu-ray by the fine folks at Severin Films. Come for the monster; stay to hear Saletri’s story.
Throughout much of his career, James Spader has excelled at playing a type; and that type is specifically this: rich and arrogant, with a sense of condescension and an air of pretense. It’s not his fault; his wispy (or is that WASPy?) good looks and mellifluous voice initially offer little sympathy to the working class. But when he’s given an opportunity to play against this type, the results are exhilarating. Such is the case with Jack’s Back (1988), a clever thriller elevated by a terrific dual role performance from Spader. Come for Jack the Ripper; stay for James the Spaders.
The cultural impact of satanic megahit Rosemary’s Baby (1968) was substantial and immediate. All of a sudden supernatural horror was in vogue, whether directly mentioning the Big S or delving into covens and cults. Somehow if money was to be made, Lucifer would be there with his asbestos lined suitcase ready to take donations from one and all. Which brings us to the small screen’s Crowhaven Farm (1970), an ABC Movie of the Week that terrified TV audiences with the knowledge that not all evil has to be metropolitan.
Only in the ‘70s, man, only in the ‘70s. Long before PC culture invaded popular entertainment, movies were the haven of the taboo, a safe house for ideas two steps from the norm. Now, many of these films of perversion were relegated to grindhouse theatres and the third feature of a Dusk Til Dawn showing at your local Drive-In. But occasionally a film will crawl towards the mainstream and plop itself down, bawling for attention. The Baby (1973) is one such film, so twisted in conception that it’s hard to believe it would be released in any decade. Except the ‘70s of course, where you could even get the director of a Dirty Harry and a Planet of the Apes flick to helm it.
So you’re wading through piles of slasher films from the ‘80s, keen on discovering a lost gem far removed from the normal gang in the woods or high school sis-boom-bah stab and gab. You’re thinking maybe a different setting will yield a fresh take, already tired tropes blurring your vision and making the distinction between a hockey mask and a fencing one harder by the day. Well…have you tried the hospital yet? Most folks are terrified of the antiseptic halls and robotic empathy doled out by uncaring staff. (Yes, yes, they also save lives, I know. I’m trying to set a mood, dammit.) And if you do decide to enter the medical field, I strongly suggest you pay a visit to Hospital Massacre (1981), Israeli King of Schlock Boaz Davidson’s wild attempt at a horror comedy, where some of the humor is even intentional.
So far in this column, the default setting for TV horror has been the supernatural; usually ghosts (vengeful division), and a cult or two (whether it be Satan or crops). However, I would be remiss if I didn’t tend to any unusual domestic activities on a more human scale. This brings us to The Babysitter (1980), Peter Medak’s chilling tale of live-in help with some serious boundary issues. She doesn’t do windows, but she will do away with you and your family.
Dislocation is something that everyone has experienced in their life, or at least can relate to; be it from friends, family, or co-workers. Sometimes we feel alone, or conversely wish that we were left that way. No horror film captures a sustained sense of isolation and dread better than Carnival of Souls (1962), Herk Harvey’s only narrative film and a low budget miracle.
For me, the most interesting thing about horror maestro Tobe Hooper’s storied career is he takes chances. He always swings big; from his landmark second feature The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), to Lifeforce (1985), to even The Mangler (1995), he pushes the genre into the absurd through concept and execution, audiences be damned. It’s an admirable trait in a filmmaker, and one that’s on full display with Eaten Alive (1976), probably his most bizarre film to date. (Which is saying a lot.)
I was a teenager when ABC’s The Disney Sunday Movie aired Mr. Boogedy (1986), a haunted house tale, and I had no interest in seeing it. I was beyond such childish ventures; my horror was blood and guts and sex and probably more blood. But teenaged Scott didn’t bother to think that every horror fan starts somewhere, and at every age too – and some gateway horror is geared towards nudging the kid to the edge of the pool instead of throwing him in. If you’re looking for some fun horror water wings, Mr. Boogedy will do the trick.
Post-apocalyptic films were a dime a dozen in the early ‘80s. They were almost always done on the cheap – a small cast of a few survivors, a barren desert and some rags for wardrobe, and voila! Throw it on HBO for a few years and call it a day. But sometimes ambition seeps in, and Night of the Comet (1984) is one of the best examples of low budget ingenuity, smart, sharply drawn characters, and a whole lot of heart. When the aliens return to take back the earth (do you want to claim responsibility for this freak show?) and wish to be shown a film indicative of the ‘80s, show them this – it represents all the best qualities of the decade’s filmmaking.