Friday night Twilight Zone reruns, Saturday afternoon Frankenstein matinees, and Sunday morning Godzilla flicks; these were the films that introduced my lifelong love affair with horror films. My parents were the influencers, the ones that nurtured my fascinations with the fantastic, weird, and wonderful world of genre film. I was taught from them to respect the classics, the films of Hitchcock, the genius of Lon Chaney, and the storytelling of Sterling, but they also emphasized an understanding and study of the past. These guidelines have, and continue, to shape my thoughts and ideas about film.
But in 1988, the introduction to the sinister and suspenseful nature of horror was still fresh for a middle-schooler who couldn't get enough of watching scary movies in the dark with stove-top popcorn and RC Cola. Growing up in a lower- to middle-class family with young siblings and hard-working parents didn’t leave a lot of time for visits to the cineplex. However, the first experience in the theater that I can remember, the experience that had the impact enough to make me crave return visits, was Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, which was released in March of 1988. It was soon after this moviegoing experience that my parents realized they had unleashed a monster, a young kid who would beg and plead for the newest scary movie from the local mom-and-pop video store. And I had cool parents, the ones that allowed a young kid the responsibility of having an unrestricted video rental card.
Thus began the journey, from A to Z through the horror section at the video store down the road. VHS cover art, still today, is emblazoned on my memories. Street Trash, Dolls, Chopping Mall, Evil Dead 2, The Blob, and They Live are all memorable mainstays in the visual catalog. However, ask any horror fan, and we all have those strange movies that are somehow etched into our subconscious, holding some kind of unusual stranglehold on our appreciation for it. In 1988 there was one film that, for the last 20-something years, has secured a place in my mind primarily because of its inclusion of pop culture at the time and the memorable cover art that called to me from the shelves. That film is the 1988 ghost story/possession film Slaughterhouse Rock.
ALL THE HITS
It was nearing the end of the ’80s renaissance of horror in 1988. Sequels were starting to make their way quickly onto VHS shelves and studios were beginning to reproduce/rip off the successful films of the early and mid-’80s. Slaughterhouse Rock had a limited theatrical run but moved to the video store almost as fast as it exited from the theater. But oddly enough, time has provided some much-needed charm back into this trashy, gory B-movie from director Dimitri Logothetis, who would go on to direct The Closer in 1990 and recently Kickboxer: Retaliation in 2018.
What gives Slaughterhouse Rock a glimmer of renewed life is its commitment to trying to be so many other films in the span of 90 minutes, in the process taking itself far more seriously than it ever should. The first part of the film functions as a knock-off of A Nightmare on Elm Street, with a young man named Alex (Nicholas Celozzi) having visions/dreams of vicious murders taking place on Alcatraz Island. At one point the famous scene of Freddy Krueger pushing through the wall is recreated, this time with a clawed wolf-like hand. The second part of the film turns into Lamberto Bava’s Demons, with Alex and his friends venturing to Alcatraz to stop the evil spirit invading Alex’s dreams. Everything goes wrong and Alex’s brother Richard (Tom Reilly) becomes possessed by the murderous spirit. It’s at this point that the film begins to wear its comedy plainly on its sleeve, as one by one the murdered friends begin to return like Griffin Dunne’s character in An American Werewolf in London, jokes and all.
The highlight of the film is none other than pop star Toni Basil, who famously sang “Hey Mickey.” Her performance here is goofy in the most ’80s way possible. Ms. Basil plays a ghost named Sammy Mitchell who was the lead singer of a band that was killed on Alcatraz by the killer possessing Alex’s brother, Richard. Sammy teaches Alex how to escape his body, and right when the film begins to run out of steam, Ms. Basil’s character breaks into a full-on dance sequence. It’s odd yet charming at the same time, becoming the perfect moment to describe how one should view this forgotten film, which is with love for the quirkiness of the ’80s and the ambition of making a horror film that is trying desperately to fit into the mold of the time.
While this film isn’t quite on the same rock ‘n’ roll horror level as films like Black Roses, Rocktober Blood, or Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare, it does utilize many popular pop and rock musicians throughout its design. Toni Basil gives a perfectly quirky performance, but the attitude of the film can be felt through the soundtrack, which was produced by Devo… yes, that Devo. While only four songs are detailed in the film, when these songs have their moments, they are effective in establishing an atmosphere and tone for the film. Adding the moody, foggy, dreamlike cinematography from Nicholas von Sternberg (son of legendary film director Josef von Sternberg) makes the film feel like a music video for a ballad from a hair metal band. And the on-site photography from Alcatraz gives the film some nice production value. All of these elements in place, accompanied by Devo’s sound, fit nicely into the structure of the film.
Slaughterhouse Rock is deserving of a revisit. While it may not become your favorite lost ’80s horror film, your favorite Alcatraz island possession film, or even your favorite B-movie horror film, there are enough practical gore effects and some really effective dream sequence designs to make you remember why you love horror from the 1980s. Toni Basil dancing and Devo pushing the soundtrack are just icing on the cake. Long live the ’80s!
Be sure to check here all month long for more special features celebrating the Class of 1988!