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?
The late ’80s provided a veritable potpourri for horror film fanatics. Slashers had petered out, and filmmakers were keen on exploring other avenues, everything from a parasitic drug slug (Brain Damage) to possession (The Unholy), and all points in-between. Of course, mileage may vary, and many have fallen through the cracks or are best forgotten. Possibly one of the oddest of the bunch is Anthony Hickox’s Waxwork (1988), a goofball mixture of Hammer and Amicus brought kicking and screaming into the modern era with a touch o’ teen comedy sensibility. And in horror, odd never hurts—and sometimes it even helps create an unassuming delight such as this.
From the mid sixties to the mid seventies, omnibus (or anthology, or portmanteau if you’re really fancy) horror films were big business. And Amicus Productions ruled the roost. Between ’65 and ’74 they released seven such films, starting with Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (not to be confused with Dr. Tongue’s Evil House of Pancakes) and culminating with From Beyond the Grave. Today’s film lands in the middle, The House that Dripped Blood (1971) showcasing a company just starting to hit their stride with anthologies.
Well, here we are again, back in Corman waters. Why do we keep coming back? What is the pull of a Roger Corman production that calls to us like a syphilitic siren wailing from the rocks, beckoning us home? My guess is quality chafing the walls of quantity. There are a lot of exploitation movies out there, and most were justified their position on the lower rung of a double bill on a Tuesday night at the drive-in. But un film du Corman is different – he’s always had an innate gift for corralling talent on the rise, and kind enough to foster it on the way down. His turn of the decade monster mash Humanoids from the Deep (1980) is a perfect storm of his wondrous cinematic sensibilities.
Sometimes great little oddities will fly under the radar. And sometimes they barrel roll out of the sky and blast through the earth never to be seen again. The Flesh Eaters (1964) is a prime example of digging through the filmic wreckage and dredging up a low budget winner. Sure, it’s not Citizen Kane, but it’s probably the Citizen Kane of Killer Microbes Versus Buxom Blondes On An Island With A German Scientist movies.
Any horror movie that starts off with a Serlingesque voiceover has my attention. And when you make your antagonist a hulking alien who looks like an eight foot tall Gene Simmons sans Botox with a proclivity for ripping off people’s heads AND shooting laser beams out of his eyes, you are granted permission to take all my money. Welcome to The Dark (1979), a fun throwback to a time when audiences weren’t beholden of such things as logic and coherence to have a ripping drive-in experience.
Some films are built from WTF moments. Case in point: I have finally seen The Mutilator (1984), an unnaturally entertaining hack ‘em up from a period when the dirt had all but covered the coffin of the overworked subgenre. And this film has more than its share of WTF – in fact, it acts as a Viking funeral for slashers of the era, an absurd catalogue of tropes transmitted with an ‘80s sitcom aesthetic and just as eager to please. What a sight to behold.
Presenting murderous moppets on screen is always a dicey proposition. For every The Bad Seed or The Omen, there is always The Good Son or Mikey skulking about. It’s all about the fear – making a five or ten year old believably frightening is hard to do. As audience members, we put our faith in filmmakers to produce tension, conflict, and danger in a palpable (but not necessarily plausible) way, and when it’s tested we end up wading through Children of the Corn. But when our faith is rewarded, we find ourselves in the Village of the Damned (1960), a seminal killer kid chiller.
Director Greydon Clark is not a name thrown around a lot. Horror fans will know him (probably) for 1977’s Satan’s Cheerleaders. The rest of filmdom need not apply. However, his best film, Without Warning (1980), would end up resonating in such a way as to inspire Predator (1987), Schwarzenegger’s Alien in the Jungle box office smash. And when I say inspire, I mean they stole the concept. But what Without Warning lacks in testosterone and Hollywood bankrolls, it makes up in B movie charm and a winsome personality. You can’t help but fall in love with the damn thing.
“the first film rated V for violence”
“Positively the most horrifying film ever made”
“Guaranteed to upset your stomach”
THIS is how you market a film, folks. All of the above (and more) is found on the poster for Michael Armstrong’s Mark of the Devil (1970), a particularly nasty bit of Witchploitation that surprisingly manages to shine a provocative light on religious hysteria and hypocrisy.
It’s very exciting to see ambition in the world of horror. Yes, pleasure can and always will be derived from one more well formed slice of the blade or swing of the axe. However, occasionally a filmmaker comes on the scene overflowing with imagination and verve, a need to spew forth fresh ideas, or at the very least, a new take on a haggard trope. And then you have Fred Dekker, who decided for his first feature to include everything he loved about exploitation, horror and sci-fi, into one glorious, hearty stew that bafflingly flew under the radar at the time of its release. And like a good stew, the more it simmers, the sweeter the taste. 30 years later, Night of the Creeps (1986) will fill you up and have you begging for more.
A haunted house film is a tough sell. No masked stalker, no creatures that eviscerate and certainly no zombies lurching down those shadowed halls. A single setting, a dark secret, a group of people terrified by something is usually your standard template, and even the best haunted house flick doth not stray from the formula. So the trick is to convince the viewers once you get them inside – something that the low on budget, high on conviction, and seldom talked about The Evil (1978) accomplishes admirably.
Movies dealing with witchcraft are usually lumped in with the supernatural, so they’re sometimes unfairly shoved to the back of the horror line. However, I truly believe they should have their own category. With supernatural horror, forces are typically thrust upon a protagonist, revenge for misbegotten deeds perpetrated upon the deceased, or righting of wrongs from beyond the pale. Where witchcraft sets itself apart is in the approach – yes, it does deal with the unseen, unkempt and unwanted from beyond – but these forces are usually conjured by a human, for good or nefarious purposes. It’s definitely a case of “don’t call us, we’ll call you”, and you won’t find a finer example of filmic witchery than 1962’s Burn, Witch, Burn.
When one looks back at mid ‘70s to early ‘80s horror, it’s quite surprising to see how many Canadian made films are nestled among fan favorites. Titles such as Black Christmas, Shivers, Prom Night, Happy Birthday to Me, and My Bloody Valentine continue to delight and shock veteran horror lovers or those just starting their jagged journey down the terror path. There is one, however, that due to a troubled production and poor distribution, seems relegated to the discount bins of time. Today, we’re pulling back the curtain on, uh, Curtains (1983), an unsung slasher weirder than a sack full of rabid beavers.
Zombies. The damn things are everywhere now, the last 12 years filling the screens big and small , carried on the rotting backs of Shaun of the Dead and the Dawn of the Dead remake (both 2004). The Walking Dead is one of the biggest shows on TV, and films ranging in quality from great to Netflix saturate the market. But let’s go back to a time when the zombie film as we know it (the Age of Romero) was in its infancy. Jorge Grau’s The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974) acts as a bridge between two seminal George Romero films, Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (‘78), and rightly stands as one of the finer Euro horrors. If you haven’t seen it, it’s definitely worth the trip.