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.
For many people, Alien (1979) is the yardstick by which all “creature on a spaceship” films are measured. However, the first few inches on that stick are occupied by It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), an effective low budget shocker that helped write the template still used in sci-fi and horror today. Climb aboard for a 69 minute rocket ride to Mars and back with an unwanted passenger. And no, I don’t mean (insert name or political affiliate you hate here).
It starts with the music, which rises as the screen fades from black to reveal the sinister orange glow of the credits and a leering jack o’ lantern. The rapid, staccato piano notes indicating an oppressive force at work; relentless and unforgiving. John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) is about all of these sensations and more; concrete vibrations that have echoed through the halls of horror, resounding from time to time to remind audiences of its lasting influence and potency.
Give it up for Juan Piquer Simon. Not only did the Spanish director bestow upon the horror world one of the craziest and memorable slashers of all time, Pieces (1983), he also found it within himself to give us Slugs (1988). Not quite as crazy as Pieces (but almost as good), Slugs trades heavily in the J.P. Simon business: a whole lot of weird, a nuclear ton of energy, and gore galore. If you only see one badly dubbed mollusk monster movie, filled with heavy pettin’ and (literally) explosive action, you would be wise to choose Slugs.
I cherish a good giallo film. For those unfamiliar with this sub-genre, it’s like a slasher, but with an emphasis on police procedure and a dash of Italian Vogue. (Not to mention the ubiquitous gloved killer.) Starting in the mid ‘60s, they revved up the violence, leading to the watershed of Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971), where Mario Bava singlehandedly invented the “body count” that transferred across the water and led us to Haddonfield and Camp Crystal Lake.
But some gialli still let their freak flags fly, bringing us to The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971), a film that blends bodies, bodices, castles, the supernatural, possible gas lighting, nudity, and triple crosses into an overflowing bath of ideas that is a lot of fun to splash around in. Not all the water stays in the tub, but there’s still plenty enough for a good soak.
Do you have a recurring nightmare? Mine is the oh-so passé “being chased”. It’s always the same; hunted relentlessly by an unknown assailant, helplessly fleeing from a certain doom. Of course, I wake up in a puddle of sweat, crying out for mommy, as one will do. The fear of cutthroat pursuit is at the center of Nightmare City (1980), Umberto Lenzi’s take on the then resurgent zombie sub-genre. And while you won’t wake up screaming after seeing it, you might end up covered in a sticky sweet glaze of WTF. The Italians don’t make their horror in half measures; I’m pretty sure Nightmare City throws in the whole cup.
It’s Hammer Time again! Every once in a while I like to dip back to that golden age, where the revered monsters of yore were dusted off with loving care for a newly appreciative crowd of teenagers at the Drive-In. Building upon the worldwide success of The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (’58), and The Mummy (’59), it was time for another Drac attack. The Brides of Dracula (1960) keeps up the high level horror, as long as you’re okay with a Dracula movie having no Dracula. Looking back on the whole series, Brides stands out (and up) due to this very omission.
Harmony is an ideal. If everyone just got along, the world could be one big campfire sing-along, a Coke commercial writ large, right? But unfortunately that’s not human nature; certainly not as it pertains to our fellow earthly citizens, or to the globe itself. The ‘70s saw the rise of the eco horror film; “Mother Nature’s back, and she’s pissed” practically emblazoned across posters from the likes of Frogs (1972), Phase IV (1974), and Day of the Animals (1977). Australia threw their hat in the ring at the tail end of the cycle with Long Weekend (1979), a fascinating look at environmental and personal disharmony.
Michael Caine had an interesting run of genre flicks starting in the late ‘70s. The Swarm (1978) was laughed off the screen, Dressed to Kill (1980) was enjoyed by audiences and critics alike, and The Hand (1981) dropped his batting average once again. Nestled in between all those was The Island (1980), a killer pirate movie from the author of Jaws and directed by the man behind The Bad News Bears. What could go wrong? Well, everything, according to most folk. It’s an odd one to be sure, but the wild tonal shifts that prevent the ship from staying on a clear course make it a fascinating treasure that gets better with each viewing.
If you are new to the works of Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, Phenomena (1985) is as good a place as any to start. It practically plays like a ‘greatest hits’ of all his virtues, and more than a few of his vices. And for the Argento veteran, it’s a gas for those very same reasons – by combining so many elements from his other films he’s created his most bizarre feature to date – no mean feat. When I need five alarm Dario, I throw on Phenomena.