• RJ BLAND & DAVID STEPHENS

FIVE FILMS FROM...1980


The Fog

(Directed by John Carpenter)

It might seem odd in retrospect given the director’s reputation since then, but this enjoyable chiller was only Carpenter’s 2nd bona-fide horror (“Halloween” being the 1st natch). It actually reflects the auteur’s love for atmospheric British horror, and was inspired by a foggy trip to Stonehenge as well as the film “The Trollenberg Terror” (alien eyeballs hide in clouds… look it was the 50s, ok?). Carpenter co-wrote the screenplay and also performed his regular (excellent) duties on the soundtrack, creating another appropriately creepy piano/electro riff. It was part of a two picture deal (along with “Escape from New York”) for AVCO-Embassy, although it’s still essentially a low-budget Indie and he chose to shoot it widescreen (anamorphic) for a bigger scale. In a nice touch Jamie Lee Curtis (with her burgeoning Scream Queen reputation) returned to work with Carpenter after “Halloween”, and shares screen-time with her real-life mother (and “Psycho” icon) Janet Leigh. Making it even more of a family affair, a major sub-plot involves husky-voiced Adrienne Barbeau (who was then Carpenter’s wife), as the besieged late-night DJ Stevie Wayne. At its core it’s quite a simple tale, based on the exploits of genuine wreckers along the California coastline during the 19th Century. Exactly 100 years after locals deliberately guided a clipper ship onto the rocks, the corporeal phantoms of the dead arrive to take vengeance on their descendants at Antonio Bay, hidden by a supernatural fog that shrouds their arrival.

Oddly enough, and seemingly like a lot of Carpenter’s work, “Fog” wasn’t greatly appreciated at the time. Maybe it was the simplicity of the story that distanced some fans and critics. But it went on to become a cult classic, especially from VHS rentals and late-night TV showings. The fact that it’s refreshingly honest with its supernatural menace and just plays up the chills, makes it stand out on repeat viewings. The Mariners (who also suffered from leprosy… poor buggers) are almost only seen as dark silhouettes, sometimes with their eyes literally shining red with rage. It’s also remarkable to note that not a drop of blood is spilt, despite your memories of the movie. People are stabbed, run-through, decapitated, and gouged to death… but it’s all off-screen or executed “cleanly”. Tension and good old-fashioned fear is what it’s all about here, and it has it in spades. As barely seen shadows creep about and the mist rolls in, it captures the mood of a campfire tale, something hammered home by the actual performance of one expertly told by classic actor John Houseman in the opening scene. There are other lovely spooky touches like; “6 must die” appearing on the driftwood, ghosts disappearing after the Witching Hour, and a victim’s eyeless corpse reviving to deliver another warning. It’s basically a Californian version of an Olde English Ghost Fable, and it works just fine. SFX maestro Rob Bottin plays the undead Captain (Blake), and the ongoing plight of the various Bay folk to survive the night makes for some genuinely nail-biting moments. Not to mention that last-second zinger in the church that sends you home satisfied and scared. The less said about the universally hated 2005 PG-13 remake… the better.

Alligator

(Directed by Lewis Teague)

Like “Piranha”, this creature feature proved that “rip-off” movies could be almost as enjoyable as the films that inspired them. Riding the slightly decreasing swell from the ripples of the “Jaws” tsunami, “Alligator” is way much better than it should be. Originally offered to Joe Dante (director of “Piranha”), it would eventually fall to Teague (“Cujo”, “Cat’s Eye”) to helm. This could have so easily been just another bland and humourless monster movie, being inspired by a well-known urban legend of giant Crocs living in big city sewers. However it became something more than that for several reasons; a tremendously witty and knowing script from John Sayles (writer of… yup, “Piranha” again), some great chemistry and an atypical hero in the shape of Robert Forster, and a clever directing style from Teague which has some out-and-out humour and an unusually satirical edge, which also resembles that of “Scream”. The fact that it balances all that out and still provides some good shocks and tension is why it’s regarded as something of a cult classic today. The plot follows the exploits of world-weary cop David Madison (Forster) in trying to convince authorities that an unfeasibly large ‘gator lives in Chicago’s sewers, and is snacking on occasional urbanites.

With that one-line synopsis, it seems to be a cynical city-based version of “Jaws”. There’s even a Quint-alike in the shape of Henry Silva’s over-confident big game hunter. But the screenplay either embraces the inevitable comparisons or has fun with it. Like the infamous malfunctioning “Bruce” robot in “Jaws”, Teague had similar issues with the animatronic “Ramon” (as named by a character) when shooting. But like the shark-buster, he wisely made the most of the shortcomings and it actually turns out pretty well. There are the obvious POV shots, but there are also camera-angles just behind the head as it hunts and bites down on victims. Not to mention some effective shots with a real ‘gator on a miniature set, and an (intentionally) hilarious sequence where it gate-crashes a wedding and flips the guests in all directions. There’s obviously no CG and the shortcomings are obvious, but Teague directs with enough style to make everything work in a tongue-in-cheek exploitative manner. Whilst it’s not outrageously gory (and some victims noticeably “climb” into the monster’s mouth), there are some limb removals and the primeval fear for being eaten alive (sometimes whole!) is mined for all it’s worth. There are also some brilliantly subtle touches that make it more intelligent; “Ramon” is linked to the female scientist in an ironic way, he appears subliminally behind the heroes during one clever sequence as he hunts them, and Forster constantly improvised lines about his age and receding hairline (encouraging his co-stars to join in). There’s even a that’s-just-wrong moment as a small boy is made to “walk the plank” at a birthday party and ends up as ‘Gator bait. Basically it’s a “guilty pleasure” that is clever enough to make you feel smart about liking it. For that reason, critics at the time noted those satirical elements and in the UK (at least) some movie posters actually depicted a smiling cartoon Alligator tied into a knot, like the plane in the “Airplane” poster. They stated it was a “…frightening movie with a sense of fun”, which is an honest bit of marketing for a change. There was a direct-to-video sequel in 1991 called “Alligator II: The Mutation”, but it was more of a bland straight-faced remake than a follow-up. However that reptilian sense of fun was recaptured in “Lake Placid” in 1999 with which it bears some similarities.

The Changeling

(Directed by Peter Medak)

If you’re ever lucky enough to be involved in a communication with Martin Scorsese or (perhaps more appropriately) Neve “Scream” Campbell, and you ask them about their favourite scary movie, chances are that this ghostly little gem would be their reply. It’s a classic ghost story that places atmosphere over blood, and pretty much haunted a generation of people that grew up with it. The plot is based on the *ahem* “real-life” events that co-writer Russell Hunter had in a Colorado mansion during the 60s. However the impressively gothic building seen in the film doesn’t actually exist, as they actually built a Victorian facade on the front of a modern building and shot the interior in studios. Donald Cammell (“Demon Seed”) was up to direct it at first, but the production appears to have had a bit of a shaky path to the screen, as Medak took over with very short notice to perform set construction and script re-writes. It headlines a fine dramatic performance from George C. Scott, who appears in the film with his wife Trish Van Devere, this being their eighth movie together. But the movie is best remembered for its unsettling adolescent spirit and “vengeance from beyond” plot. Scott plays a grieving composer called John Russell who rents an aging mansion in Seattle, but is subjected to supernatural shenanigans which reveal a horrific crime from the past.

If you’ve ever seen a horror film that contains a malevolent wheelchair, usually one that perambulates creepily towards a character with no means of propulsion… then that filmmaker was almost certainly inspired by this very film. It’s the one thing that people never forget about it, and it makes for a truly unsettling image. Whether or not Hunter was genuinely spooked by a disability aid in real-life, there was still a lot of interest in parapsychology at the time, and the co-writers did a lot of research for the screenplay. That sense of contemporary beliefs, along with Scott’s convincing unease and some really creepy moments, is what imprints on the mind. The highlights occur when Scott cautiously tiptoes around the house in the dark, and is occasionally terrorised by noises or visions of a boy’s corpse. It echoes the pure supernatural suspense of classic genre films like “The Innocents” or “The Haunting”, with atmosphere rather than jump-scares (although there are some well-orchestrated examples of those here as well). It also manages to throw some intriguing psychological twists into the mix. The source of a loud banging noise that Russell first hears, cleverly turns out to be a “premonition” of him breaking a padlock to a sealed room, as well as the audible re-enactment of a murder. It’s also suggested that it’s his personal grief that makes him susceptible to the ghost’s influence and search for closure. The fact that it’s NOT a teenage-led spook-fest also gives it more gravitas, and there are some good scenes with Scott (and the rest of a shall-we-say “mature” cast) emoting as he discovers the truth behind the presence, the reason for which is hidden in the title itself. If you’re a fan of more recent ghost flicks like “The Others” or “The Woman in Black”, you really owe it yourself to make sure that you’ve seen this 80s classic, which pretty much wrote the book on the way modern hauntings are often depicted. Great Scott!

Inferno

(Directed by Dario Argento)

After the success of Suspiria in 1977, Italian Director Dario Argento announced that it was merely one part of a trilogy of films that he planned to make – which he called the 'three mothers trilogy'. In retrospect, it's safe to say that Suspiria is the best movie out of the three and although the third instalment (Mother of Tears) has it's moments, it's a bit underwhelming. However, the second film of the three, Inferno, is one that had to endure development hell for five years (the new management at Fox shelved it's release) and even when it was eventually released theatrically, it barely registered with audiences. A shame because the film is a bit of a surrealist treat...

Partially derived from the concept of "Our Ladies of Sorrow" (originally devised by Thomas de Quincey in his book Suspiria de Profundis (1845), the trilogy are centred on three ancient (and evil) witches who control the world, each of whom lived in different parts of the world. In Suspiria, we focused on Freiburg (and Mater Suspiriorum) and for the follow up, Inferno, the story shifts to New York, where a young woman named Rose discovers an old book in her apartment building called 'The Three Mothers', which explains the history of the three aforementioned witches. Rose becomes convinced that one of the witches, Mater Tenebrarum, lives in her building. She writes to her brother (who lives in Rome) to tell her of her suspicions. He heads to New York but when he arrives he discovers that his sister has gone missing. When he looks around her apartment for clues where she might be, he finds a couple of drops of blood on the floor. What happened to her and where is she? Oh, you'll find out...

Those looking for a coherent narrative and logical storylines, are going to be pretty disappointed. There's not too much of that to be found here. What we have is essentially a series of beautifully designed set-pieces and interesting images and ideas. It's what makes the film so divisive and why it received a very mixed response upon it's low key release. It's more of a cinematic experience and should really be viewed as such. The visual flair and colour palette you'd expect from Argento are here in spades and whilst the atmosphere isn't quite as heavy and dread-filled as Suspiria, it's still efficiently spooky. Critics will point to the lack of narrative discipline and the inconsistent performances (some of them are a bit cringey) but this is Argento, people. These elements aren't so much flaws as you get the impression that he's just not as bothered by them. He's more interested in style and mood – and he's pretty damned good at creating both. The underwater ballroom scene alone is worth tuning in for.

Fun fact: Some of the cityscape views were actually tabletop skyscrapers built out of milk cartons covered with photographs.

Motel Hell

(Directed by Kevin Connor)

One of the great things about the 1980's (in terms of film anyway) is just the sheer diversity of stuff that was being produced. Horror was no exception and there were some real offbeat gems that came out of that decade (some of which we will explore in future posts obviously) – but as far as 1980 goes, our standout offbeat entry is Kevin Connor's oddball horror-comedy 'Motel Hell'.

Tobe Hooper was originally attached to direct (the film was supposed to be a bit of a homage to Texas Chainsaw Massacre) but left the project when Universal, who was producing it at the time, shelved it. It was originally intended as a straight-up horror, however Director Kevin Connor insisted that the script be changed to something resembling a black comedy. Which in retrospect, was a great call – as it's the unique blend of horror, campyness and self-awareness that makes it such a treat.

The plot follows brother and sister Vincent and Ida who run a motel that is attached to their farm. However they don't sell regular farm produce. Oh no, they specialise in cured human meat. You see, they set up traps on roads to capture people who are then buried up to their necks in the couples' garden. They then have their vocal cords cut and are fed until they are deemed ready to 'harvest'. "It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent's fritters". That's what you're looking at here.

You can see what it's compared to Texas Chainsaw Massacre now, right? However one of the reasons why 'Motel Hell' works is because it knows how to walk the line between ripping something off and giving something a knowing nod and a wink. And it's references to other horror movies always fall into the latter category. The tongue-in-cheek script and over-the-top effects leave you in no doubt that this isn't a film that takes itself too seriously. That's not to say that there aren't shocks and scares - it's a pretty gruesome movie – but it's this sense of good-natured parody and fun that are the key takeaways here.

On a technical level, the film is sound too. Kevin Connor does a fine job and the script is a joy at times. However Rory Calhoun deserves special attention for his portrayal of mild-mannered cannibal farmer Vincent. It's not easy to make a deranged psychopath appealing and likeable but he manages to do just that.

Horror-comedies are notoriously hard to navigate but there aren't many out there that find a balance as effective as 'Motel Hell'. Yes it's campy and imperfect and silly. But that's kinda why we love it.

Oh and the chainsaw face-off at the end is also a blast.

Fun fact: Harry Dean Stanton was originally approached to play Farmer Vincent, but declined.

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