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.
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).
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
When I think of some of my favorite B films of the 1970s, my mind tends to drift towards the works of the late filmmaker William Girdler. This man made nine movies in six years before his tragic death in ’78 at the age of thirty; chief among them Abby (’74), Grizzly (’76), and Day of the Animals (’77). Now, quantity obviously doesn’t equal quality, and he made a few outright stinkers. But he was exciting to me because he became a better, more confident filmmaker with each film; this is especially evident with his final release, The Manitou (1978), your typical ancient Native American little person demon growing out of the back of a woman’s neck who fights the heroes in space with laser beams kind of flick. You know the type.
Full disclosure: The Amityville Horror films do not make up my favorite franchise. And it has nothing to do with the central “haunted house” premise, but rather the execution of the series thus far, from the serviceable ground zero template, The Amityville Horror (1979) through the (as yet unseen) upcoming Amityville: The Awakening, with some stops in between at DTVville (not to mention the Ryan Reynolds remake; but I said not to mention, so not mention I shall). The name is so shopworn now that “Amityville” has become synonymous with “poopy”.
But, but, BUT…let’s rewind to a time when a follow up to the kind-of goofy James Brolin (and his glorious perm) starrer was actually anticipated. That film was a smash success at the box office, and the powers that be wanted to revisit the village of Amityville to see what other demons they could find in the basement. The result? 1982’s Amityville II: The Possession, a film that sets itself above (and apart) from the series by leaving a burning bag of Eurosleaze on the front doorstep, ringing the bell, and running away. And I mean that as a compliment.