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.
My favorite thing about taking these weekly trips to the Drive-In is my own selfish thirst for discovery. I need to patch up the holes of missing films on my personal movie screen; there is still so much to see, and sometimes the holes are so big that they obscure the view. Every once in a while though, a film comes along that not only mends the tears in the fabric but strengthens the whole. Such is the case with Night of the Demon (1957), Jacques Tourneur’s masterpiece of shadowy menace and dread, and a new personal favorite.
Sometimes, TV horror is the perfect medium for a particular kind of story. Perhaps a story that doesn’t rely on effects or sensationalism to affect the viewer; a tale that works in a simple, straightforward way, dealing with all too common emotions experienced by the regular teenage mind. To wit, Summer of Fear (1978) AKA Stranger in Our House, a chiller directed by the late legend Wes Craven based on the bestselling YA novel of the same name by Lois Duncan (I Know What You Did Last Summer). It’s a breezy thrill ride that also shows Craven could successfully work in the mainstream.
Long live Michael Laughlin. Two years after he released one of my favorite early ‘80s oddities, Strange Behavior (I wrote about it here), he was back to unleash the next chapter in a proposed ‘Strange’ trilogy, Strange Invaders (1983). And while the former is a tribute to Mad Scientist films of the ‘50s via an updated Slasher take, the latter tips its fedora to the great Alien Invasion films of the same era. It may not reach the same dizzyingly weird heights, but Strange Invaders is an affectionate romp that captures the feel of those bygone drive-in classics and solidifies Laughlin’s unique voice.
Lucio Fulci is known to most horror fans for his work in the fantastical, through his late career success with Zombie (1979), City of The Living Dead (1980), and The Beyond (1981). Certainly these are his most widely seen and cherished films, and for good reason – they blast through the screen in a feast of color, magic, and grue; short on logic, sure, but long on imagination and dread. But before he untethered his heart in a quest for purity, he engaged in his homeland’s horror sub-genre of giallo, including Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972), incredible, subversive proof that he could create something just as effective and decidedly much more earth bound.
A lot of great TV horror movies rely on a final image, a real shocker, to hammer home the fear. But not all of them. When Michael Calls (1972) is a telefilm that measures out its chills, leading to a logical conclusion (for a small screen sinner) instead of an iconic screen shot for nostalgic viewers. Regardless, this one provides a platform for a solid thriller with a pedigree behind and in front of the camera.