FIVE FILMS FROM...1981
(Directed by David Cronenberg)
Whilst “Carrie” might be seen as the poster-girl for telekinetic horror films, and modern superhero movies have psychically-enhanced characters in flocks, this was the film that really put the gory potential of the subject onto the silver screen, whilst confirming Cronenberg as a genre auteur. “The Fury” might have already exploded a human body with will-power, and films like “The Power” (1968) and “The Medusa Touch” (1978) tread surprisingly similar paths, but Cronenberg brought this tale of emerging telekinesis to life with the OG head-explosion and a palpable sense of power. The story was also written by the Canadian filmmaker, and he would later go on record to say that it was the “most frustrating” film he’d made, although it was his most critically/financially successful project until “The Fly”. Originally to have been set in the future and called “Telepathy 2000” (allegedly), instead it takes another look at Cronenberg’s stance on body-horror and how science can mess with the balance of nature. It has a very strong cast including; Jennifer O'Neill, Michael Ironside, Patrick McGoohan, and Stephen Lack. The plot basically sees “good” mutant Cameron Vale (Lack), entrusted with a mission by penitent scientist Paul Ruth (McGoohan), to stop “evil” mutant Darryl Revok (Ironside) from wreaking havoc with his like-minded mentalists.
So far, so Marvel. But this being Cronenberg, it’s a whole lot more visceral than “X-Men”. The mentally-gifted characters are called “Scanners” and can exploit fragilities in the human body as well as electronics. (NB: One sequence actually sees Vale “hack” a computer system with his thoughts). But of course every horror fan remembers the stunning head explosion from the opening scene, which was created by filling a latex head with raw meat and stage blood, before being (literally) shot from behind with a 12-gauge shotgun. There are other great effects and sequences; all accompanied by a sinister “pounding” noise as the Scanners use their powers. The film ends with a benchmark moment in horror with Vale and Revok engaged in a deadly duel of minds, with eyes-bursting, flesh-burning, and blood spurting from wounds. It’s a sequence that loses none of its power even today; with both Lack and Ironside contorting wildly, whilst covered in prosthetic effects from make-up artist Dick Smith (The Exorcist). It’s all gloriously backed up by the dramatic score from Howard Shore (a regular Cronenberg collaborator). There’s also some biting social commentary as the cause of powers is found to be an experimental birthing drug called Ephemerol (shades of Thalidomide), which leads to a plot twist and a character being “scanned” by a unborn child! Definitely one of Cronenberg’s best, even if Lack is somewhat wooden in the lead, Ironside more than makes up for it in his first role as the deliciously evil Revok. There were a number of sequels that went straight to video in the 90s (“Scanners II: The New Order”, “Scanners III: The Takeover”, “Scanner Cop”, and “Scanner Cop II”). These are actually kind of fun, but link only tenuously to the original and are nowhere near the quality. Rumours of remakes, reboots, and TV series have periodically surfaced every couple of years post-2000, but nothing has yet materialised
(Directed by Joseph Zito)
This text-book 80s horror was previously best known outside of the US by the alternate title “Rosemary’s Killer”, which somehow makes it more unsettling and personal than the original bland title (especially when accompanied with the masked-GI-assaults-girl image on the poster). There’s also a censored version that played in Germany called “Die Forke des Todes” (“The Pitchfork of Death”), and apparently an unofficial version that played the more remote US theatres as “Pitchfork Massacre”! All that aside, it mostly acts as a showcase for the gruesome effects work of the great Tom Savini, and is arguably one of the best non-franchise slashers from that decade. This excursion into slaughter by Zito would directly be responsible for him securing the gig for the “Final Chapter” of “Friday the 13th” franchise 3 years later (and also two Chuck Norris films… go figure). In terms of plot it’s no great shakes, and was co-written by Glenn Leopold (who worked for the Hannah-Barbera cartoon studio), and Neal Barbera (the son of Joseph Barbera from the same studio)… so it’s almost directly related to “Scooby Doo”! The story opens in the closing days of WWII, as a spurned faceless lover murders the girl (Rosemary, obviously) who dumped him. 35 years later, the same killer seemingly returns (still wearing his combat gear) to slay more teenage victims with sadistic brutality.
The cast doesn’t really contain any “name” actors, and there isn’t a great deal of originality. It’s all pure stalk n’ slash… but it’s done really, really well and has deservedly won a cult status over the years. Unfortunately the number of edits and (cut) versions that were in circulation diminished the intensity for some of the global audience, and led to some of Savini’s set-pieces being edited to hell in some territories for a long time. Although there are “only” 8 kills, they actually have some real emotional heft and weight to them. You hardly know the characters, but they’re established enough for you to empathise… and unusually for a film like this, they’re not stab n’ go efforts. They look like they REALLY hurt. (NB: Zito tells of an encounter with a Security Guard who thought he’d genuinely killed a cast member at one point during a screening!). Savini considers some of this to be his best work, and it’s usually his hands actually performing the murders. The showstopper is the knife plunged downwards through a characters head (and exiting through his throat), who’s held immobile until his eyes roll back into his head. A pitchfork in a shower (satirising “Psycho”) and a graphic throat-cut, is also relentlessly depicted. This was studio horror just before the morale majority became unable to distinguish fact from fantasy, and started to make genre cinema the scapegoat for the world’s evils. The identity of the killer strains credibility, but it does lead to another cracking head explosion (1981 was the year for them apparently). In short, this was studio horror for the hardcore and is well worth catching in its entirety if you can.
(Directed by Joe Dante)
Werewolf films have two bona-fide, don’t-even-try-to-argue-about-it, furry classics. One of course is “An American Werewolf in London”, and the other is this gem from Dante. Although (like “Jaws” and “The Exorcist”) its standalone quality has never diminished, it also spawned one of the most erratic franchises in the genre. Like the John Landis film the screenplay had a humorous angle to it, but unlike that project “Howling” was based on a more straightforward horror novel from Gary Brandner. However Dante teamed up with writer John Sayles having worked with him before on “Piranha”, and planted humorous elements and in-jokes to the plot, along with some ground-breaking SFX from Rob Bottin (after Rick Baker went to work on “American Werewolf”). It has an excellent cast with genre favourites like Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, and Robert Picardo, along with cameos for industry icons like Kevin McCarthy, John Carradine, Roger Corman and Forrest J. Ackerman. The plot sees Wallace’s news reporter travelling to a commune in a mountain resort, after recovering from an attack by an obsessed stalker (Picardo). Unfortunately the aforementioned commune requires its members to be hairy on the inside…
If you want to be pedantic you can point out that “American Werewolf” contains classic Werewolves (humans turn into quadrupeds during a full moon), whereas “Howling” contains Wolf-People (shapeshifters who turn into two-legged beasts at will). In fact, a cool brief sequence shows some stop-motion animation (by David Allen), with full-length shots of several upright Lycanthropes. All that aside, this film was a thoroughly entertaining R-rated excursion for Dante with much to enjoy. A modest hit at the time, it grew into cult status with a huge audience from VHS rentals. And you can guess which sequences people re-watched the most (apart from the naughty campfire tryst). There are several long scenes involving Picardo (as slimy serial killer Eddie Quist), who slowly transforms into an Alsatian-from-Hell via pulsating bladders of flesh, painful sounding elongated bones, and distended fingers. Nothing like it had happened before (even with “American Werewolf” stealing its thunder a little) as it captured the shuddering intensity that saw a man change into a monster before your unwavering POV. Granted the furry animatronic suits that are used following the changes are a little caricatured, there were some last-minute budgetary constraints, and Dee Wallace’s final form cutely resembles that of a “Star Wars” Ewok! It doesn’t matter, because the whole film dances between dark humour (“I’m going to give you a piece of my mind”), and genuinely scary FX. A landmark film, its success on rental resulted in a most unlikely set of sequels. Starting with “Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf” (aka: “Howling II: Stirba – Werewolf Bitch”) in 1985 and ending with “The Howling: Reborn” in 2011, the seven films have nothing to do with the original, and the quality wavers from atrocious to ambitious. We await more news of another inevitable reboot, but nothing will scratch the original film.
(Directed by Andrzej Zulawski)
Maverick Polish film-maker Andrzej Zulawski made a number of intriguing films in his career, often mixing elements of romance, drama and anti-commercialism to great effect. After he moved to France, his work took a turn and he began making more extreme arthouse stuff. He only made one English language movie however – and thankfully it is (arguably) the best of the bunch. That movie is 1981's Possession.
The film beings with Mark, a spy, returning home after some top secret espionage shit. However he doesn't get the warm welcome he receives from his wife, Anna. Nope, she wants a divorce. She refuses to give a valid reason for wanting out of the marriage but Mark eventually agrees to let her have custody of the apartment and their young son. He goes out on the lash to drown his sorrows but when he returns he finds his son, neglected and alone – with his wife nowhere to be seen. When she eventually returns, Mark refuses to leave. Concerned at his wife's erratic behaviour – and suspicious that she might be cheating on him – Mark hire a private investigator to follow her and get to the nub of what's going on. The PI soon discovers that she has another flat in a derelict apartment block. After posing as the building manager of the complex, the PI enters Anna's secret apartment and what he finds in the bedroom...well, let's just say things get pretty weird and dark.
Genre is often one of the points discussed when referencing 'Possession'. There are those that believe that it's a drama or a suspense movie or a romance. The truth is that it combines elements of all three but it adds a healthy dose of paranoia and horror to the mix too. Critics often point to the fact that Zulawski spends so long building up his characters and focusing on their relationships as a reason to cite why it isn't a true horror movie. But it's all a load of bollocks. Are horror movies not alone to also be character studies?
The horror of Possession operates on two levels really. There's a fair bit of surrealist terror going on throughout the film as well as a decent amount of blood and gore. However if you dig a bit deeper, the most disquieting and affecting stuff is about the breakdown of relationships and divorce. 'Hereditary' (Ari Aster) was so powerful because at its heart it was about the disintegration of the family unit but Possession is very much about the separation of lovers. Zulawski was going through a divorce himself during the making of Possession and this emotional angst is visible in the end product.
The film also boasts a top notch cast and the central performances from Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani are both hugely impressive – if a bit over the top at times. Zulawski infuses his usual dreamy fluid style to the whole thing and whilst those who get frustrated with artsy, abstract storytelling might feel a little frustrated with Possession, for the rest of us it's a maelstrom of violence and ideas and emotion. A real assault on the senses that is both unsettling and thought-provoking in equal measure.
Watch it for the scene on the subway if for nothing else. It'll mess you up.
Fun Fact:The film was initially banned in the UK as a "Video Nasty" in the early 1980's. The BBFC later approved it in 1999.
Dark Night of the Scarecrow
(Directed by Frank De Felitta)
Scarecrows eh? Like mannequins, there's something fundamentally creepy about them isn't there? They look almost real, almost human. And if you stare at one for long enough you start to really worry that there's a chance that they might....move. It's that leap from an abstract, absurdist fear to terrifying reality that strikes a chord with most people. However until the 1980's these inanimate objects that were stuck in the middle of fields to scare of birds hadn't really been represented on the big (or small) screen. Not in genre movies anyway. Since then we've had a few – 'Scarecrows' (1988), 'Dark Harvest' (1992), 'Husk' (2011) and even 'Jeepers Creepers 2' to a certain extent. However none of them hold a candle to 1981's 'Dark Night of the Scarecrow' – a TV movie that has gone on to develop something of a cult following.
In the deep south, a friendly but mentally challenged man named Bubba befriends a young girl called Marylee. Some of the locals aren't very comfortable with the blossoming friendship (despite the fact that it's completely platonic. When Marylee is attacked by a dog, Bubba saves her and laves her at the doctors office. However when she is discovered (and presumed mortally wounded), a few of the townspeople instantly surmise that Bubba is to blame and head out to his mother's house to confront him. Bubba's mother hides her son in a field, dressed as a scarecrow but the small-minded locals soon find him and proceed to fire multiple rounds into him until he dies. When they return to town they discover that Marylee has survived the dog attack and learn that they have just killed an innocent man. Rather than accept responsibility, they claim that Bubba attacked them and they acted in self defence. The courts agree and the men escape punishment. Well, from the living at least...
Directed by veteran novelist Frank De Felitta from a script by J.D. Feigelson, Dark Night of the Scarecrow was meant to be a small indie film – however it was soon snapped up by CBS. It's not hard to see why to be honest. Because although it is a TV movie, Dark Night of the Scarecrow transcends that status and is rightly considered by many to be one of the best and most underrated slasher movies of the 1980's – and that's heady praise indeed when you consider the sheer volume of stalk'n'slash movies of that decade.
For a low budget TV movie there is so much to admire at a technical level. The score is effectively chilling smart cinematography of Vincent Martinelli really conveys the blazing heat and closeness of the southern setting. The acting is also good too, with several really strong performances – especially from Charles Durning, who plays one of the murderous locals that is soon stalked by the vengeful spirit. However, the main reason that DNOTS works so damn well is due to the atmosphere and suspense that it generates. You might expect more blood and gore from a slasher film. But DNOTS is so bloody good at ramping up the tension and creating a paranoia inducing sense of ambiguity that it doesn't need bucket fulls of blood. The opening credits set the standard and the following 90 minutes or so manages to masterfully maintain a reals sense of eeriness. Subtlety is the key to the success of the film and so is it's social takeaway by the end of the film. Sure, scarecrows and vengeful spirits are scary but you know what's more terrifying? A prejudiced community committing horrid acts of violence to the innocent.
Fun fact: Screenwriter J.D. Feigelson saw the name Otis P. Hazelrigg on a sign and liked it so much that he used it for the main character.