Until you start watching killer rat movies, you don’t realize how few killer rat movies there are. It’s not a sub-genre that sparked off franchises (does Willard and its sequel Ben count? Let me know) or inspired Funko toys, but rather has films strewn here and there throughout horror history. Today we’re scurrying back to my particular turf for Deadly Eyes (1982), Golden Harvest’s Canadian-lensed attempt to move over from Kung Fu to Rodent Fu. (Sorry Joe Bob Briggs, I couldn’t resist.)
Larry Cohen: Party of One. That’s the way I see him, anyway; he’s always made the films he’s wanted, the way he’s wanted – with varying results, sure, but at the end of the day they are nothing less than Larry Cohen Films: unique, challenging, quirky, funny, and almost always a blast to watch. Which brings us to Q: The Winged Serpent (1982), his tribute to the AIP monster movies of days gone by, overshadowed by his patented blend of offbeat characters and intriguing dialogue. The flying lizard? Merely a delightful distraction.
The Creative Death sub-sub-genre took flight in the ‘70s with The Omen (1976), as that little imp Damien (and his dad) dispatched the cast in different macabre and entertaining ways. (Variety is the spice, and all that.) The ’78 sequel continued the burgeoning tradition, leading us up to The Legacy (1978) - a film that takes its own stab at variety by marrying The Old Dark House to The Dark Underlord and delivering a fun, wicked (albeit goofy) little offspring.
“Charming” is not often a word associated with horror films; it’s counterintuitive to what the genre usually stands for—you know, terror and tension, followed by release and a sense of ease, then repeat—but yet here we are with a romantic tale about a boy, a girl, a teleportation device, and the insect that comes between them. Welcome to the world of The Fly (1958), where the hosts are welcoming, the police polite, and the monster bug-eyed.
Brian DePalma has always come under the gun of the Movie Police, whether it’s for charges of Hitchcock “homages” or misogynistic attitudes towards his female characters. Well round up the paddy wagons for Body Double (1984), the clever thriller that mixes Vertigo, Rear Window, and the adult film industry into one heady stew that audiences took a hard pass on at the time. Maybe it was too classy?
In regards to his filmic output, director Michael Winner was wildly inconsistent at his worst and wholly divisive at his best (and vice versa). The remarkable thing is that those two extreme opinions can be about the same film; some find the kinetic sleaze of Death Wish (1974) powerful and disturbing, others find its ham-fisted social grazing problematic and off-putting. But it was a big hit, so naturally Universal let him ride the satanic tide with The Sentinel (1977), a Good vs. Evil, Portal to Hell potboiler that warms this Fulci-loving heart three years before Lucio even set foot in New Orleans.
Filmed in 1959 but not released until AIP picked it up in ’62, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is a weird little treasure that deserved to be saved from the wreckage. It surpasses all yardsticks of measurement such as taste or talent, and instead floats to the surface on sheer strangeness and a stringent commitment to sleaze. Man cannot live on refinement alone.
Redemption can be a hard ticket to punch, in real life let alone on film. An arc has to be convincing in a short space of time and make us believe our protagonist’s journey. Thanks to a brilliant performance by Karen Black and a meticulously unfurled plot, The Pyx (1973) offers sorrow and resolution in a gripping package.
Everyone needs an escape from time to time. A place apart from reality, where the strange whisper with the miraculous, and cheap trinkets are bartered with greasy denizens of the night. What better place to set a horror film than the carnival, where the potential for mystery awaits around every crimson tent and distorted mirror? If you’re so inclined, step right up and buy a ticket to The Funhouse (1981), the late Tobe Hooper’s wonderful tribute to the seedy shadowed world of carnies, caramel apples, and Universal monsters.
Schlock should never be a dirty word in the world of cinema. Some of my favorite films are utterly devoid of taste and frequently, refinement. The majority of drive-in treasures lie somewhere between perspiration and inspiration, covered in flop sweat and trying desperately to entertain. This is often where you’ll find the films distributed by American International Pictures, and always where you’ll see director Bert I. Gordon’s oeuvre. Empire of the Ants (1977) is no exception.
Man versus Nature, Man versus Beast, Man versus Food; all mythical in status to varying degrees and most represented on the silver screen. Of Unknown Origin (1983) tackles the middle myth with a tongue firmly planted in its giant rat infested cheek and is an obsessive tour through a domestic hellscape.
1981 was the Year of the Werewolf in horror; An American Werewolf in London and The Howling were easily the leaders of this particular pack, with Larry Cohen’s comedy Full Moon High offering up another unique monster spin. There was one other film that put its own twist on lycanthropy, and that’s Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen, laden with social commentary writ large in place of silver bullets and gypsy fortune tellers. And it’s all the better for it.
Revenge films have been around for a very long time; one can look to The Virgin Spring (1960), Straw Dogs (1971), or Death Wish (1974) for their rise from serious drama to movies of a more exploitive nature. Psychic Killer (1975) adds a unique twist to the tale by having astral projection as a means to the violent ends. Quirky and laden with creative deaths, it very much embraces its weirdness, providing a fun carpet ride for the whole family (at least according to its mind-boggling PG rating).
In retrospect, Carnival of Souls (1962) certainly cast a long and deep shadow over the horror genre; not for general audiences at the time, where it ended up relegated to the bargain bins of the public domain for decades. But horror frequently pays it forward, and filmmakers find inspiration in the lost and obscure. Take the debut from Thom Eberhardt, Sole Survivor (1983), an oasis of cool originality in a genre that was drying out in the slasher sands.
The exploitation films of the ‘70s always offered up the goods to everyone. And by goods I mean a whole lot of sex and violence, and if you were so inclined to notice behind fogged up eyewear, pulpy takes on the relevant social issues of the day. Not all were created equal, of course; they can’t all be clever variants of the form such as Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, or Foxy Brown. However, they almost all deal with female empowerment and Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973) more than checks off all the boxes, squeezing every last drop of pulp from its sci-fi fruit.