Weird is a very comfortable word in Jeff Lieberman’s lexicon. From the night crawler nastiness of Squirm (1976) to his mountaintop massacre Just Before Dawn (1981), his films are always a little left of the norm and all the better for it. And in between those two, he decided to take a run at a paranoia thriller nursing a major ‘60s hangover, pulsating with psychotic, Kojakian ex hippies. Welcome to Blue Sunshine (1978), a film more potent than the brown acid your great uncle said he took at Woodstock. (Although he probably wasn’t even there.)
Known as the King of the Gimmicks, producer/director William Castle will surely be remembered for such B staples as House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Tingler (also ’59) and 13 Ghosts (1960), cheap but fun pictures with added pleasure for the moviegoer by the use of ingenious devices such as Emergo, Percepto, and Illusion-O. It’s only fitting that he ended his career as co-writer/producer of Jeannot Szwarc’s Bug (1975), a nature gone amok flick that becomes a Weird-O halfway through to detail a descent into madness.
Following the horror juggernaut that was Halloween (1978), major studios were very interested to hop in bed with stalk and slay splatterfests. When the Paramount distributed Friday the 13th (1980) looked to be muy lucrative, the big boys jumped hard on the mattress to see how much coin they could dislodge. MGM was no different, and made their claim with He Knows You’re Alone (1980), a film that ultimately survived the dog pile with winning characterizations over slavish Carpenter imitations.
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.