• RJ BLAND & DAVID STEPHENS

FIVE FILMS FROM...1978


Piranha

(Directed by Joe Dante)

The aftershock from “Jaws” and subsequent animal-horror copy-cats was still being felt in 1978, and there were plenty of aquatic and beastly horrors to savour (including a sequel to that very movie). But in terms of innovation, entertainment, and sheer nuttiness; Dante’s fun film stands head-and-shoulders above the others in the deep-end of the exploitation swimming pool. The production was a typical roughshod project from Roger Corman, and designed solely to cash-in on the sharky blockbuster. By all rights it should have been a forgettable exercise; the special-effects budget was just $50,000 and it was all shot in Corman’s usual style of guerrilla filmmaking. But there was a perfect storm of young talent which elevated the whole thing; quirky direction by Dante, a witty screenplay from John Sayles, good early work from FX experts Rob Bottin and Phil Tippett, and solid work from the two leads (Bradford Dillman and Heather Menzies). What resulted was a thoroughly enjoyable B-movie that told the story of a large shoal of genetically enhanced Piranha (designed by the US army to use in the Vietnam war!), being accidentally released into the river near a popular summer camp.

The core narrative is a satire on “Jaws” (dumb authority figures ignore the heroes and people die at a leisure facility), and in fact Universal Studios nearly took out an injunction on the film. Brilliantly that never happened because Steven Spielberg actually saw it and declared it to be “the best of the Jaws rip-offs”, and the company backed off. Suffice to say that there’s a lot to enjoy here, and some of the gory FX are quite good for such a low-budget, including a character that gets his legs skeletonized. Mostly however the film preys upon that primal fear of something-in-the-water and resorts to bubbling-blood-coloured liquid to heighten the tension, with some shots of the speeding fish being simply puppets on sticks, filmed quickly enough to just about fool the senses. Their attacks are enlivened with a “gnawing” sound that was apparently accomplished with dental drills and some water. It’s actually quite subversive in the fact that it deliberately goes to the trouble of putting crowds of kids in mortal danger (and following through on that), and has a sympathetic character die in a surprisingly moving sequence. Genre icon Barbara Steele also has an effective cameo, and the verbal sparring between Dillman and Menzies is hugely endearing. A commercial success and a later cult favourite, it’s a guilty pleasure of the highest order. It notoriously led to James Cameron’s (crap) sequel “Piranha II: The Spawning”, and a made-for-TV remake in 1995 (featuring Mila Kunis!). Best of all though was Alexandre Aja’s 3D remake in 2010, which knowingly turned up the gore and nudity to maximum levels in homage to the exploitation era.

The Fury

(Directed by Brian De Palma)

Given that De Palma had directed the very successful adaptation of Stephen King’s telekinetic shocker “Carrie” only two years previously, the notion of filming a horror-thriller based on another book with a similar theme was either a no-brainer or a questionable choice. But whilst “The Fury” is far from being the director’s best work, and is something of a mish-mash in terms of tone and content, it’s still a great ride for genre fans and culminates in one of cinema’s best money-shots! It was based on the book of the same name from author John Farris, who also wrote the screenplay. Taking that link with “Carrie” one step further, it even shares a leading lady with Amy Irving, and has an excellent A-list cast including Kirk Douglas, John Cassavetes, and Charles Durning. Structured like a straightforward spy thriller, it follows the story of ex-CIA agent Peter Sandza (Douglas) as he searches for his son Robin (Andrew Stevens), who has been duped by evil Government official Ben Childress (Cassavetes). The added twist is that Robin has powerful psychic powers, and his father seeks the aid of the young Gillian Bellaver (Irving) to find him, as she also has emerging comparable skills.

Although the film seems oddly forgotten these days, and it’s eclectic mix of thriller and the supernatural doesn’t quite gel as well as you’d hoped, it’s still highly enjoyable hokum and with lots of highlights. The soundtrack (by the great John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra!!) is pretty impressive, and the cinematography shows the visual flair that would become the director’s trademark in later films like “Dressed to Kill” and “Blow Out”. So we get some explosive action scenes and a typical stylish (sort-so) slo-mo sequence that highlights a pivotal moment for the protagonists. There’s also some uncomfortably familiar moments that would ring true today (a major plot point sees a terrorist attack faked to qualify the questionable actions by a government agency). The first half is a little slow, but it makes up for this (at least for genre fans) with some slam-dunk moments in the latter part of the films. Especially as Robin’s dick-ish behaviour, throbbing forehead vein, and frightening powers are highlighted. Douglas makes for an atypically craggy hero, Irving and Carrie Snodgrass make appealing heroines, and Cassavetes is a superbly slimy villain. And then there’s that perfect “Go to Hell!” ending… which once seen is never forgotten, and contains a multi-angle gore explosion. (NB: In the book the same character just gets drowned). It was a success as the time, but remains the only one of the Farris books (of which there are three sequels) to be adapted into a movie. A remake was formally announced in 2008 but quietly vanished without trace… which is probably a good thing as it would be hard to top elements of the original. It’s no “Scanners”, but it certainly packs a wallop.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

(Directed by David Philip Kaufman)

As horror fans, we often get together and bitch about how bad and unnecessary modern remakes of classic films are. But obviously, that’s not always the case as some make relevant changes to the narrative and often surpass the original. That was the case with “The Fly” and “The Thing”, and it could also apply to Kaufman’s superlative update to the 50s quintessential sci-fi thriller. Also based on the same novel as the 1950s B&W classic from Don Siegel, namely “The Body Snatchers” by Jack Finney, this takes the central concept of invading extraterrestrial doppelgangers away from the original California setting. Instead it updates the story and plonks the whole scenario in the bustling metropolis of modern-day San Francisco. It was a deliberately bold move from Kaufman, who chose his “favourite” city as the new ground zero for the infiltration, rather than a remote location. At any rate, the plot blatantly underlines the outer-space menace by having the miniscule blobby “aliens” travel to Earth in the opening scene and “merge” with the flora of the U.S. city. The movie has an excellent cast including; Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum and Leonard Nimoy. Aside from the location change, the core narrative remains the same, as Sutherland’s health inspector starts to encounter growing amounts of people in the city that appear to have lost all human emotions.

Whereas the 1956 film incorporated the communist and reds-under-the-bed paranoia of that time, this version directly tackles the loss of empathy and fear of dehumanisation that had become apparent in many cultures and major cities during this crime-ridden era. The recent Jonestown tragedy was also thought to have had an impact on the public perception of the film. Despite some mixed reviews at the time, it has since gone on to be considered one of the best ever horror remakes. It also created a massive impact on the genre with its disturbing imagery and iconic twist ending. Part of this is due to the semi-realistic way it’s structured and shot, like a modern ‘noir’ rather than a sci-fi movie. The extra detail given to the pods and their “duplicating” process is especially nasty, with the tendrils moving towards sleeping victims and half-formed pod-people being splattered before the process is complete. Minor incidental details, like the pod-people calmly disposing of the remains of their victims with the rest of the household garbage, are incredibly chilling. The natural emphasis of psychiatry trying to explain the coldness of the pod-people is another nice touch, and Kevin McCarthy’s cameo (the star of the original film) led many to theorise that this could be considered to be a direct sequel as oppose to remake. Aside from that; the hideous sight of a man-headed dog (the result of an alien pod trying to duplicate two life-forms at once) and the dark ending (which was apparently kept from most of the crew until filmed) sears the nightmarish possibilities on the mind. In fact the film was so influential; the pod-people shriek has become a popular motif in the pop culture, and was deliberately re-used by Abel Ferrara in his underrated update in 1993. However, the less said about the 2007 Nicole Kidman interpretation, the better…

Coma

(Directed by Michael Crichton)

That Michael Crichton was one talented guy. He is of course best remembered for writing Jurassic Park, probably one of the biggest and best movies of the 20th century – but he also wrote Twister and the hit TV show ER. He was also a competent director too and directed (and wrote) the 1973 science-fiction thriller Westworld, which has since been adapted into a smash hit TV show. However, we're here to talk about one of Crichton's lesser known works, 1978's mystery horror-drama, 'Coma'.

Set in Boston Memorial Hospital, Susan, a feisty young surgical resident (played by Genevieve Bujold) becomes suspicious when several seemingly healthy patients suddenly start developing complications and wind up in comas. She soon discovers that all the comatose bodies have been sent off to a remote facility called 'The Jefferson Institute'. Her digging around upsets and offends her superiors (and some of her colleagues) and she is given a few days off to get over the death of one of the patients, who happens to be a close friend of hers. With her doctor boyfriends in tow, she heads off to the seaside to relax. However on their return journey, they pass a sign for The Jefferson Institute. Susan decides to investigate and soon manages to blag a place on a physicians tour of the building. However, once inside, she decides to do a bit of sleuthing....and the results are pretty grim!

Medical horror is a bit of a niche sub-genre to be honest. Asylums? Yeah, sure, there are loads of them. But hospitals are a different kettle of fish. Most hospital based features and television shows are more concerned with doctors and nurses sleeping with each other and various absurd accidents and the injuries that are created as a result. However the fact remains that hospitals are pretty unsettling places and an ideal place to eek out some tension and scares. And that's pretty much what 'Coma' does, with great effect. In one interview published after the film's release, he said 'This is a story that contains many elements of reality: the fear people have of surgery, the fear of dying at the hands of your doctor, phobias about hospitals'. Crichton briefly studied medicine too back at college so if anyone's well placed to take on hospital horror, it's him. It'd probably be a leap to compare him to Hitchcock but there is a real Hitchcockian undercurrent running through the story and some of the scenes.

The film also boasts a great cast too. Prolific French-Canadian actress Genevieve Bujold Is great as the leading lady but a supporting cast including Rip Torn, Michael Douglas, Tom Selleck add an extra layer of quality to the whole thing. Ed Harris also has a cameo too!

Jerry Goldsmith's score is great too but it's the nerve-wracking, nail biting atmosphere that Crichton builds that makes this worth your time. It was a financial success at the time and has garnered decent reviews since but alas, is one of those films that is often overlooked. Check it out – it's just what the Doctor ordered!

Fun fact: Background artists played the coma patients being suspended by wires in the coma clinic. They underwent such great a physical strain that they could only be filmed in six minute bursts. Because of this, these extras were paid more.

Martin

(Directed by George A. Romero)

I know, I know. There is another George A. Romero film that was released in 1978 that we could be adding to this list but we're trying to stay away from the obvious choices – hence why Halloween isn't on this list either. The horror master may be famous for his contributions to the zombie sub-genre (and Dawn of the Dead is undoubtedly a masterpiece) but it's Romero's story about a man who believes he is a vampire that takes our fancy this time.

'Martin' was Romero's first feature since 1973's 'The Crazies' (included on our 73 list). It's a low budget production, with many of the supporting cast being played by friends and family – and although the theatrically released version clocks in at just over an hour and a half, the original cut was a whopping two hours and forty five minutes!

The film centres on a conflicted young man (called Martin, obviously) who, after the death of his immediate family, travels to Pennsylvania to live with his grouchy and staunchly Catholic grand-uncle and his cousin Christine. Martin's superstitious grand-uncle is ultra wary of his new lodger – and for good reason. Because Martin has constant romantic fantasies and visions about vampirism and even believes himself to be one. His behaviour becomes more and more macabre and deadly. However, you're never really sure whether what you are seeing is actually happening – or if it is just a figment of Martin's troubled young mind. Either way it makes for fascinating viewing.

However that sense of losing touch with reality is done in such a way that it feels grounded and real, rather than fantastical and abstract. This is a dark psychological thriller rather than the usual campy vampire fare that had already been served up in spades over the last decade or so. It's a rather sombre and deadpan update of the classic vampire story and Romero explores a plethora of social, moral and religious themes throughout the film's running time. Ultimately it's up to you how you interpret the events of the film and what you take away from it. Visually, it's really interesting too – and the mixture of grungy 70's suburbia with classical turn of the century aesthetics is a winning combination.

So next time you're looking to revisit some of Romero's work from his heyday, remember that his zombie movies weren't the only good stuff he churned out...

Fun fact: Director George A. Romero originally wanted the entire film to be in black and white, but the producers didn't want to risk this experiment and insisted that the majority of the film be in colour.

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