• RJ BLAND & DAVID STEPHENS

FIVE FILMS FROM...1984


Razorback

(Directed by Russel Malcahy)

At one point in the 80s the director of “The Scorpion King 2” and “Derek and Clive get the Horn” (Yes! Really!) was regarded as a wunderkind on the cine-circuit, and was expected to go onto great things. Whilst Mulcahy had long been respected for his many extravagant pop videos for the likes of Elton John, Duran Duran and Ultravox, his helming of the insta-cult movie “Highlander” in ’86 brought him to the attention of critics and studios. However two years before that, he made this utterly-bonkers but extremely stylish killer-pig flick. “Razorback” was a seminal example of an ‘Ozploitation’ offering from around this time, along with stuff like “Roadgames”, “Turkey Shoot”, and… err... “BMX Bandits”. It’s based on a novel from Peter Brennan (the creator of TV show “Judge Judy”!!), and was adapted for the screen by Everett De Roche who also penned another great Ozzie Nature-Horror in the shape of “The Long Weekend” (1978). The cast includes Gregory Harrison (“Trilogy of Terror”), Arkie Whiteley (“Mad Max 2”), and the great character actor Bill Kerr (“House of Mortal Sin”). As far as the premise goes, it’s fairly simple and feels like another landlocked “Jaws” rip-off, although to be fair large chunks of “Moby Dick” and several Outback/Urban legends are also incorporated. Basically the plot sees an unusually large feral pig (‘Razorback’ is a common term for these aggressive wild boars) stalk the outback and garner a taste for human flesh, which leads several unlikely characters to hunt it down.

It boggles the mind to think that Jeff Bridges was nearly cast in the lead for this! But very loose realism and mixed reviews aside, this is actually a decent exploitation piece that’s a grisly tusk above the rest. You do have to put up with some (perhaps appropriately) ‘hammy’ lines like; “It has two states of being… dangerous or dead!” There are also plenty of stereotypes and unlikely occurrences. But in terms of visuals and outlandish tension, it knocks it out of the Aussie Rules pitch. Like “Jaws” the production contained a misbehaving animatronic animal, which (like the shark) benefits by being viewed infrequently and only at the appropriate moments… and it mostly looks quite good in some startling shots. It helps that Mulcahy shoots the whole thing like a pop video with everyday items and buildings being lit like they’re on a stage. The outback has seldom looked so stylish, as the cinematography bathes remote farm houses in neon-blue moonlight or shines orange desert sun-rays through rusting wind-pumps. Then there are the occasional gory gorings, and some unsettling shots of the giant pig highlighted on the horizon, or charging down victims. It was very much a calling card for the director and it looks much better than the slight piece of exploitation that it could have been. There are some grim incidental details (a victim’s wedding ring is found in pig-crap!), and RB’s attack on a car and the final duel in the food cannery are suitably gruesome. The film never really became a huge hit, but gained cult status over the years and remains one of the better “Jaws”-on-land variants that exist. According to Mulcahy Spielberg even contacted him to ask how some of the effects were done. Fans of Killer Pig movies should also be tempted to hunt down Jeong-won Shin’s fun 2009 offering “Chaw”.

Friday 13th:The Final Chapter

(Directed by Joseph Zito)

Well, this was the film that made cold-hearted cynics of all us horror fans. From his point onwards, any franchise horror film that has “Final” in the title is usually greeted with a disbelieving arched eyebrow and an accompanying “Yeah, right”. For evidence see: “Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare”, “SAW 3D: The Final Chapter”, and… yes… “Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday”. All fraudulent films, whose pants deserve to be consumed by the fiery pits of Hades. But we’re highlighting this one as it’s actually one of the better “Friday” films, and at least tried to go out with some integrity and imagination. As far as the “Friday” franchise goes, this was one of the more troubled productions. For a start Zito, who was hired on the strength of his slasher film “The Prowler”, got up to some naughtiness by hiring another writer (Barney Cohen) to pen the screenplay when the studio were paying him for the gig. (NB: The Writer’s Guild of America were not amused). Two actors on the shoot were genuinely hurt during filming dangerous stunts, with one developing hyperthermia due to prolonged exposure to cold water. As regards the cast, then-child-actor Corey Feldman took a surprisingly major part of the plot, with eccentric thespian Crispin Glover standing out also (mostly for his wacky dance scene). Stuntman and 58 year-old veteran Ted White made for one of the best versions of Jason, and pretty much gave the benchmark mannerisms for the character until Kane Hodder stole the show in later movies. (NB: He also confronted Zito and threatened to quit on behalf of the suffering-for-their-art cast). The story itself carried straight on from “Part III” (minus the 3D gimmick), with a ‘dead’ Jason escaping from the morgue and heading back to Crystal Lake for more murdery sex-before-death shenanigans… unaware that his nemesis is holidaying there, namely 12 year old horror and FX fan Tommy Jarvis (Feldman).

With all the BTS malarkey and familiarity with the slasher routine… this should have been a total bust by all accounts (and plenty of people still write it off as such). But we say it’s not. For several reasons, Paramount had famously become embarrassed by the franchise (how dare something so trashy keep making money!!), hence this attempt to finish the saga. With that original intent, the budget was slightly bigger and SFX maestro Tom Savini was enticed back to the brand to ‘finish what he started’. As a result, the kills are frickin’ awesome; heads twisted off, corkscrew stabs, throats slashed, cleaver-meets-face, etc. With Zito’s zeal for violence, there are also a number of cool slo-mo deaths and action sequences. There’s a sly satirical element to the younger teenage cast, making them dislikeable and immensely killable. And then there’s the fact that there’s a ‘Final Girl’ and ANOTHER survivor in the shape of a pre-teen horror fan who actually kills Jason! Kinda brave for such a cookie-cutter slasher. Yes, there’s still questionable acting and dialogue (“He’s killing me!”). But at least it took some risks, ramped up the gore, and gave Jason a highly memorable death scene. Of course it didn’t stick, and the large profit that “Final Chapter” made meant a false start in the shape of a “New Beginning”, before “Jason Lives”. But, hey… at least they put some effort into it. For die-hard fans of the franchise it’s worth noting that this was the last film to directly continue on from the previous entry, which actually means that the narrative takes place on Sunday the 15th and the next two days. But we’ll let them have that one…

The Company of Wolves

(Directed by Neil Jordan)

As far as links between Fairy Tales and Horror goes, the tail (arf!) of “Little Red Riding Hood” is probably one of the most easily made. Poor little “Red” and her misadventures with the “Big Bad Wolf”, is an easy target for Werewolf connotations or just plain old slasher tropes. It’s cropped up in various guises in films like “Trick ‘R Treat” and (obviously) 2011’s “Red Riding Hood”. However nothing has captured the cinematic pureness of story, with all its fragile innocence and savage possibilities like Jordan’s 2nd feature film. After the critical success of “Angel”, the director met with Angela Carter (author of the original short story that the film is based on) and worked on a movie treatment. The eventual result was this gothic fantasy with a fantastic UK cast including bit parts for likes of Terence Stamp, David Warner, Stephen Rea and (most prominently) Angela Lansbury (as the perfect “Granny”). The film had a relatively low budget from the (normally exploitative) Cannon films and was almost entirely shot in Shepperton Studios. Jordan quipped humorously in the DVD commentary that he had to “make a fairy tale forest out of about twelve trees”. Nonetheless it all looks fantastic and has dated very little since the 80s. It probably benefited from the exhaustive storyboarding that was used, and the involvement of creative talents line Anton Furst (Tim Burton’s “Batman”). As far as the actual plot goes, it’s very loose to say the least. Most of it is literally a dream conjured up by the Red Riding Hood-alike Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson), as she slumbers in the family home and her furtive on-the-cusp-of-womanhood mind imagines a fantasy world filled with werewolves. This allows for stories-within-stories and something close to an Amicus anthology, as Rosaleen and Granny experience (or tell) variations on incarnations of the Big Bad Wolf.

The free-forming (intentionally) vague narrative doesn’t really tell a story as such, and even the fabulous slo-mo ending can be read in a variety of ways (end of innocence, dreams shattered, etc). But the cool thing about the movie is just how satisfying it is on so many different levels. Analogies and metaphors abound, but it’s also a great melding of nightmares and dreams, ugliness and beauty. And before CGI become the norm, this has a number of stunning practical Werewolf transformations that are as bloody or disturbing as the out-and-out horror shows. There’s even a variety of them; one character has to literally rip his skin and face off (because he’s “hairy on the inside”), and another has a wolf-snout burst from his mouth as he sheds his human form. When this type of imagery is used it’s disturbing enough, but then you get it mixed in with other motifs like childhood toys coming to life, and a character’s head being struck from her body and shattering like ceramic. It also has some beautiful lighting effects and some poetic bloodless sequences, like the she-wolf’s journey from the underworld. It’s not entirely perfect of course, Cannon pushed it relentlessly as a pure werewolf horror film, and the budget meant that most of the real “wolves” were noticeably (friendly looking) Belgian Shepherd Dogs. But that’s beside the point when you have such a good-looking film and Angela Lansbury swearing as she tells a coarse fable. The George Fenton soundtrack is also an epic addition to the proceedings, especially with the rousing final scene. Despite the FX and the visuals, the mis-marketing at the time stymied the International market take, but it has since gone on to be regarded as a genre classic. Well worth hunting down, and would make a splendid double-bill with Matteo Garrone’s “Tale of Tales”.

Body Double

(Directed by Brian De Palma)

This is the second film from Director Brian De Palma that has been mentioned on this blog series. The first was his offbeat horror-musical-comedy Phantom of the Paradise (1974) – a film which gained something of a following years after its initial release. Ten years later, another De Palma release was somewhat written off but has since gone on to gain some acclaim. That film is 'Body Double'. Anyone who has read Brett Eaton Ellis' American Psycho may be familiar with this film – it is eponymous anti-hero Patrick Bateman's go-to flick (I've got to return some videotapes). Based on that you know that it's going to be a bit messed up, which it is.

Made the year after 'Scarface' (Still De Palma's best movie), 'Body Double' tells the story of a struggling actor called Jake who has the mother of all bad days. Not only does he lose his job due to his claustrophobia , when he arrives home he catches his girlfriend cheating on him. To make things doubly worse, she owns their apartment so when he leaves her he has nowhere to stay). However things look to be on the up when he meets a guy called Sam at a method acting class. When Sam realises that Jake is essentially homeless, he offers him a place to stay – Sam's wealthy friend is away in Europe for a bit and needs someone to housesit his rather plush house in the Hollywood hills. Jake accepts and during the tour of the house, Sam shows him to a telescope that is set up by a window to look at the adjacent building where a female neighbour dances erotically every night at the same time. Jake becomes a bit obsessed with the woman and watches her every night – but one night he sees her being abused by a man she appears to know. The next day, Jake follows her and sees her make a phone call to someone arranging to meet them later. Jake also notices a disfigured Indian man (who he noticed watching the woman a few days ago ) is also tracking her. To tell you much more than this could potentially ruin the rest of the movie so we will leave it there. However It all ends up in a world of murder, mystery, twists and pornographic film-making.

Many critics have commented that Body Double rips off (or pays homage to) several Hitchcock features - Rear Window and Vertigo in particular. It does indeed nab what appear to be complete scenes from those movies on occasion but what Body Double is predominantly Hitchcockian in style rather than content. However, whilst most Hitchcock inspired fare fail to match their muse, De Palma is a master of tension and suspense himself and the end product feels like a more adult and intense take on the standard cat-and-mouse stuff. Jake's claustrophobia makes for some really disorientating and unsettling scenes and in terms of violence, Body Double doesn't hold off either – the drill murder scene being particularly memorable. And you'd be hard pressed to find an antagonist as creepy as the disfigured Indian fella.

Body Double isn't a straight-laced erotic mystery thriller though. One of the reasons that it works so well is that it doesn't take itself too seriously, despite the genuine moments of fear and tension it provokes. It's trashy, it's sleazy and it has its tongue placed firmly in cheek at times too. But it never feels cheap or nasty, because it's really just a poignant satire at its heart. Like the decade it was released in, it's full of excess and a bit brash, but that's why we dig it so much.

Oh and a special mention for lead Craig Wasson, who is great as the flawed (and slightly pervsh) Jake.

Fun fact: Brian De Palma got the idea to direct Body Double after working with a body double for Angie Dickinson's shower scene in Dressed to Kill.

Silent Night, Deadly Night

(Directed by Robert Charles E. Sellier Jr)

To some, Santa Claus is an almost sacred part of western culture. Yeah, we know he isn't real but for parents and children especially, there's a lot of joy to be had from promoting the idea of a tubby bearded fella squeezing his way down your chimney and eating your mince pies and leaving presents etc. Invariably, at some point, we all realise that he is in fact a total fabrication. However the good image of Santa as a wholesome and altruistic being still holds true – and is passed from one generation to the next in order to retain that childlike sense of wonder and hope. So it's little surprise that a film about a serial killer dressed as Santa might ruffle some feathers – which is exactly what happened in 1984 with Charles E. Sellier Jr's 'Silent Night, Deadly Night'.

The film begins on Christmas Eve, where five year old Billy – along with his parents and younger brother - stop by Utah State Mental Hospital to see his catatonic Granddad. Mum and dad obviously leave their son alone with his creepy Granddad and during this time he reanimates for a few seconds, just long enough to tell little Billy that he should be scared of Santa because he punishes all the kids that haven't been good for the whole year. If that wasn't enough to mess Billy up, after the visit, on a secluded stretch of road, Billy’s parents are hailed down by a man in a Santa suit standing beside a broken down car. However this particular Santa is actually a criminal who has just committed a robbery and killed a store clerk. Billy's dad is quickly offed but manages to escape – however he still has to watch his mother have her throat slit by the man in red.

We then flash forward three years, where Billy and his brother are living in an orphanage run by a sadistic nun, Mother Superior. After she tries to force him to sit on a visiting Santa Claus' lap, he freaks out. Ten years later, we join up with adult Billy, who is now working at a toy store. On Christmas Eve, Billy's boss asks him to take the place of the store's Santa Claus; the regular dude has been injured so they need someone to fill in. Billy reluctantly accepts. Bad idea. He begins to have flashbacks to the murder of his parents and then spots the girl he likes making out with one of their colleagues. Billy snaps and his transformation into killer santa begins...

Where to even begin with this! Lots of people detest Silent Night Deadly Night. Indeed, there were protests and campaigns to get the TV adverts banned before it had a theatrical release in 84. TV ads were being shown after family shows like Little House on the Prairie and parents were mortified that their kids were going to be terrified from Santa as a result.

To be fair, if their kids had witnessed certain scenes from the movie, it would undoubtedly have rocked them to their core. Throats are cut, rape and child abuse are referenced and someone is impaled on a set of reindeer antlers (ala Texas Chainsaw Massacre). I mean, for adults it's all good fun (well, some adults) but not so much for the little ones. What makes it even more bleak is that the story is told from the perspective of the villain, which is always a little unnerving. Maniac may be slightly more unsettling in this respect but here it still feels pretty grimy.

Let's be clear, Silent Night Deadly Night is a fundamentally flawed film. The first half an hour is pretty slow going, the acting is a bit shoddy and the music is plain awful at times. However you just have to respect how dark and edgy this film is. And let's face it, there's just something joyous about watching Santa Claus running amok with a gun, right?!

Fun fact: On its opening weekend, the film outgrossed Wes Craven's landmark slasher A Nightmare on Elm Street, which opened the same day (albeit in 235 fewer theatres). Before being pulled from theatres, it grossed over $2.4 million.

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