In the 1950s, independent film was just as keen to stick its nose in the atomic blender as the Hollywood big boys. Of course, budget restrictions frequently left most of the monsters wanting, be they big or small. But sometimes a shot of quirk was enough to stand apart from the Tinseltown terrors. I give you Fiend Without a Face (1958), a low budget romp content with showing less until it has to show it all, with giddy results.
Aging much better than a freezer burnt, half eaten cake, Happy Birthday to Me (1981) stands out as one of the better ones from the golden era of slashers, when the major studios weren’t afraid to throw some blood soaked (Canadian) coin at a B level concept, and in the process giving it some A list icing.
Cult filmmaker Larry Cohen is, and has always been, an idea man. Whether commenting on rampant consumerism (The Stuff), religious fanaticism (God Told Me To), or vigilantism (Maniac Cop), Cohen’s films (as director or screenwriter, often both) show an ambition beyond the zippered monsters and flying serpents. And while the biggest caveat regarding Cohen is that his reach often exceeds his grasp, that’s not always true. Case in point: It’s Alive (1974), Cohen’s potent take on abortion, the pharmaceutical industry, and (extremely) unconditional love.
With the advent and huge success of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), studios were quick to hop aboard the killer train. Out were the outsized monsters of the ’50s, in were mama’s boys and socially maligned women dealing with sins of the past. Dementia 13 (’63) and No Way to Treat a Lady (’67) are just a sample of the ’60s horror films that focused on smaller scale, human dilemmas, regardless of how twisted they may be. One film that seems to have been misplaced in the schizoid shuffle is Freddie Francis’ The Psychopath (1966), a lean little thriller that acts as a gateway for one of the most revered European horror sub-genres: the giallo.
Crazy has always tapped a main vein in horror films; if it didn’t we would be stuck watching films of people being pranked or wronged, who laugh it off and become dentists instead (with all due respect to Corbin Bernsen). Now, of particular interest to me is when the sins of the flesh meet that fracture of the mind; where the lascivious and the lurid tangle in sweaty, blood stained sheets. And 1982 coughed up a doozy (in character and content) with Night Warning, a tale of a very protective aunt who doesn’t want to see her nephew leave the nest.
I’ll confess. I have a real mushy soft spot for Heavy Metal music. Back in the ‘80s, in my teen years, my buddy Nick and I would crank the latest from Kiss, Scorpions, Judas Priest, Cinderella, etc. And there’s something specifically about Metal tailored to teenagers – that heightened sense of drama we feel at that age, the hormonal urges, and the need to push back against ‘society’. (Right – but please give us our allowances to consume products, okay?)
But Metal also equated with power, which was aligned with evil, and before long, many parents came up with the notion that Metal was Satan’s music. (Is the PMRC still a thing? Brr.) Well, marketing is marketing, and few Metal bands fought the label (hell, some even embraced it). So it seemed the timing was right for that satanic safe haven, the Horror Film, to meet up with the music of the murderous and profane, Heavy Metal. And thus was born Trick or Treat (1986), a fun time capsule of a very specific period in pop culture.
1978 cast a long shadow in the world of horror. From Dawn of the Dead to Halloween, the landscape was abundant with everything from the socially relevant to the singularly terrifying, from superior remakes (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) to quirky haunted houses (The Evil). And then there’s the red headed stepchild that no one talks about: Brian DePalma’s The Fury. Frenetic, action packed, and gruesome, The Fury never gets the love from even most DePalma fanatics. What a shame – it’s never less than entertaining, and at its best showcases the director’s mesmerizing visual touch.
Horror in the ‘50s tended to lean towards the sci-fi end of the spectrum. And why wouldn’t it? This was the atomic age, and hiding under your school desk during a bomb drill (the safest place to be!) was scarier than any monster Hollywood could muster. So as a form of social moralizing (or an excuse to display giant, mutated lizards on screen), filmmakers merged the fear of nuclear annihilation with the need for entertainment. Most filmmakers, that is. Paul Landres’ The Vampire (1957) is a deliberate ride through the (mostly) human condition, small in scope but surprisingly big on emotion. Just don’t expect any vampires, radioactive, sparkly, or otherwise.
Sometimes in horror, a giant creature will do. It takes us back to a simpler time, I think. A time when an oversized spider, or a massive lizard sparked shuttered eyes at the Drive-In or local theatre. It feels almost like a cleansing; a reset of the scare-o-meter back to the innocent levels of the Saturday matinee. And if you were a kid in the ‘70s, Bert I. Gordon’s The Food of the Gods (1976) fit the bill nicely.
I’ve said it many times, but the early ‘80s roster of horror films is anything if not varied. As a consumer, if you want a slasher, you have your pick – My Bloody Valentine, Friday the 13th Part 2, etc. If you have a hankering for monsters, there’s The Incubus or The Funhouse. But let’s say you’re feeling lazy, and you just want something that combines all that, plus a little more? Well, here’s a suggestion: If you only watch one Slasher/Creature Feature/Old Dark House movie this week, make it Hell Night (1981), Tom DeSimone’s wildly entertaining amalgamate that miraculously holds together.
Undisputed Fact: Roger Corman is the greatest B picture producer of all time. His ability to find (and exploit, if we’re being honest) amazing talent and pull together movie miracles on miniscule budgets is nothing short of astonishing. However, it’s often downplayed what a smart, succinct director he was on many a project. X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) is a stellar example of his talent behind the lens.
Released by AIP in September, X turned a tidy profit on top of its $250,000 budget. Critics were generally kind, but dismissive, calling X well made hokum, essentially. And due to its meager fundage X certainly shows its pedigree through petty set design. But…there’s a kinetic buzz that permeates every frame of X, a swirling colorgasm that bleeds through with Corman’s gift for storytelling. X rises from pulp to a lucid perfection.
Every time a hospitalized man wakes up, he’s lost another limb. Meanwhile, London police are on the hunt for a serial killer who drains the blood from his victims before dispatching their bodies. Also meanwhile (again), a Nazi-ish regime is being thwarted from an insider in an Eastern European country. Again meanwhile (and also again), I’m thoroughly confused. And you will be too! Welcome to Scream and Scream Again (1970), a joint Amicus/AIP production that’s as delightful as it is confounding.
The above quote from the late, legendary American film critic Kael was most certainly not referring to Lamberto Bava’s Demons (1985), but a lot of films in our beloved genre bow to this description. Demons is great trash – it wants nothing more to assault your senses with a barrage of images and sound for 88 minutes before you even know what hit you, and does so while breathing that rarified Italian air.
It’s the eyes, isn’t it? Wide like saucers and twice as deep, they’re impenetrable. And the wooden leer of the wide open maw betrays them, separate and with its own agenda. Of course I’m referring to ventriloquist dummies, and the eerie spell they cast upon the viewer. The horror viewer, specifically; we’ll seek out anything that gives us a sense of unease. Which brings us to Richard Attenborough’s Magic (1978), a wryly creepy tale of encroaching madness and showbiz folly. (Aren’t they the same thing?)
As a horror fan, sometimes you just want to wade in the waters of the absurd and inane. To bath in the bathetic, and wash in the ridiculous. If you’re up for a swim, throw on your trunks and join me for Herbert J. Leder’s It! (1967), a modern retelling of the Golem legend dry humped by Psycho. And if that description piques your interest, take the plunge with me, won’t you?