• RJ BLAND & DAVID STEPHENS

FIVE FILMS FROM...1986


Manhunter

(Directed by Michael Mann)

To a lot of people, Hannibal Lecter will always be Anthony Hopkins. To some he may be personified best by Mads Mikkelsen. But before both of those (admittedly superlative) representations of Hannibal the Cannibal there was Brian Cox and this commendable visualisation of the literary world of Thomas Harris. Unfairly getting poor reviews at the time, due to the stylised cinematography and the heavy reliance on a (brilliant) soundtrack “swamping the storyline” (according to some critics). But with the later success of “The Silence of the Lambs” and “C.S.I.”, the film has thankfully been recognised for its many positive aspects. Initially turned down by David Lynch (allegedly due to all the violence in the novel!), it was eventually helmed by Mann whilst he was still working on his hit TV series “Miami Vice”. As a result, many people lumped “Manhunter” in with that lightweight action show, but it deserves more respect than that. It would have been called “Red Dragon” after the novel (like the 2002 Brett Ratner remake), but Executive Producer Dino De Laurentiis decided to change it, in case people confused it with a Martial Arts movie. Yes, the mind does boggle. Actors such as Paul Newman and Richard Gere were considered for the part of retired FBI profiler Will Graham, before William Petersen was cast. And Hannibal Lecktor (note the unnecessary weird name change) was nearly played by John Lithgow, before veteran Brit actor Cox took it. A great supporting cast including Tom Noonan, Kim Greist, and Joan Allen rounded out the rest of the characters. Staying fairly loyal to most of the Harris source material, the plot sees Graham come out of a self-inflicted retirement to help cops find the serial-killer “The Tooth Fairy” (an alarmingly good Noonan as Francis Dollarhyde). And of course he has to visit his incarcerated “friend” Hannibal to get a kick-start on the investigation and a view into the Dark-side.

In all honesty “Manhunter” is closer to an orthodox police thriller than pure horror, as oppose to the Grand Guignol excesses of “Silence” and the “Hannibal” TV series. But it’s a damned good one, and has certain moments that rival its more recent updates and genre-tinged crime drama. It’s also a remarkably well-produced and edited film, and shows Mann at the top of his game with impeccably mounted sequences; over-the-shoulder shots of Will as he investigates crime scenes or has a telling out-of-body experience, the disturbing sight of Freddy Lounds ablaze in a wheelchair, lots of smooth pans-and-glides, etc. He also plays around with colours; muted soft blue for Will and his wife (when he’s in a good place), and stronger red-tinged hues for Dollarhyde’s apartment and murder scenes. The soundtrack is also as important as the visuals with The Prime Movers’ “Strong as I am”, and Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" used to stunning effect. It’s interesting to note the aesthetic differences between the Hannibal scenes here, and in “Silence”. Instead of a Gothic dungeon, we’re in a dazzling white modern facility with iron bars. Cox plays him with an English accent as a genial-but-dangerous psychotic with a high IQ and a sense of menace to match, and apparently auditioned with his back turned. This pays off with a cool scene where he manages to wrangle the use of a phone to taunt Will (“I’ve lost the use of my arms”). It’s an underplayed and extremely effective version of the “good” Doctor and still stands up. But Petersen and Noonan also manage to dominate their scenes for differing reasons. Noonan apparently went “full” method, and his almost-otherworldly interpretation of Dollarhyde is oddly mesmerising in its complexity. And whilst it’s a fairly subdued performance by Petersen, it retains some of the conflicting themes that have stayed with the character. By thinking like a murderer, do you open yourself to your own darkness and insanity? In this version however, whilst still troubled, Will stays firmly on the side of the Angels and rescues his relationship with his wife. (NB: This is mainly why some people had trouble with Will Graham’s actions in the denouement of the “Hannibal” series. He’s not ‘this’ Will.). Low on blood, but high on detecting, shooty-bits, and character drama, this still remains an excellent offering from this decade. As mentioned previously, the film was remade with Hopkins as Lecter (and Ed Norton as Will) in 2002, and did surprisingly well on a critical basis. But (despite what RT may say), this is still the better and more interesting version.

Night of the Creeps

(Directed by Fred Dekker)

An unsung gem that never seems to get the attention it deserves, despite older horror fans praising it to the skies when it first came out… and ever since. The film is essentially homage to the sort of pulp/horror/ sci-fi nonsense that most of us would happily watch until the cows come home… and were then hoovered up by flying saucers. It was the first production to be written (within a week!) and subsequently directed by Dekker, who would repeat the same duties the following year with the much-loved “The Monster Squad”. Deliberately a love-letter to all B-movies, it wears its heart on its sleeve and is full of genre Easter Eggs. All the names of the main characters are based on famous horror and sci-fi directors (Chris Romero, Cynthia Cronenberg, Det. Landis, Sgt Raimi, etc). The narrative starts in the 50s and apes alien-invasion movies, before smartly nipping to the 80s and mixing the two essential ingredients from that decade; zombies and Prom Night. Whilst there are no real ‘name’ actors in the cast, it does headline a brilliantly deadpan performance from genre regular Tom Atkins (“Halloween III”, “The Fog”, “Maniac Cop”, etc). Atkins actually went on record saying that it was hands-down his favourite movie to work on and he would act for Dekker again in a heartbeat. Unfortunately despite the best efforts of Fangoria and other trade magazines, and some great reviews, the movie did not open well and there were some post-production issues. Nevertheless the film is now rightly considered to be an underrated retro-treat which is fairly easy to get hold of today. The story sees fake-looking dumpy faux-ETs having a bad-time in space, near the vicinity of Earth. A capsule gets launched into orbit and it crashes in 50s USA (like EVERY UFO at the time did). A slimy slug-like creature escapes from the capsule and infects a typical 50s dude. Cue the 80s and a cryogenically frozen body is disturbed and “hatches” more of these slugs, which stream out into the grounds of “Corman University” (arf!) and demonstrate an unfortunate ability for reanimating corpses or possessing the living (by jumping down their throats obviously). And it’s Prom Night…

It’s difficult to summarise how immensely watchable and good-natured “Creeps” actually is. It felt like a high-budget fan movie, made by people who appreciated just how good “guilty pleasures” could be and realism be damned! The script crackles with one-liners and plays to the abilities of the cast. Especially with Atkins, who plays a stereotypically hard-nosed cop, who runs around reacting to the ridiculous events by scowling heavily at them, and barking “Thrill Me!” every time somebody tries to talk to him. He also delivers the wonderful poster strapline (“I got good news and bad news, girls. The good news is your dates are here”… “What's the bad news?”… “They're dead”) in the best way possible. The nature of the creatures (they enter the mouth of living/dead victims and nest/feed in the brain) means there are tons of head explosions and undead shenanigans. Mostly the FX are quite good and fun to watch, although the zombie dog is a bit shonky. It also has to be noted that the slug-like “Creeps” look like jet-propelled turds, but then again you could say that about the critters from Cronenberg’s “Shivers” and James Gunn’s “Slither” (with which it shares some common themes). Dekker’s script realises the importance of likeable characters here, with Jason Lively as the unorthodox “nice guy” hero, and Steve Marshall making a pleasant impact as the “crippled” protagonist who has a nasty encounter in the washroom and a genuinely touching “Bro” friendship with the lead. If that doesn’t sell the whole thing, then howsabout a NOTLD climax in a Sorority House where zombies are dispatched by a guy wearing a tuxedo and brandishing a flamethrower, and a character that tapes his mouth shut to foil the Creeps? The important thing is that the whole thing is just super-fun to watch, and could well do with some rediscovery after “Stranger Things” made 80s horror cool again. However some studio interference is noticeable and there are two endings; one unnecessarily mean-spirited theatrical one, and a much-better version that comes full circle and teases a sequel. 2007’s “Zombie Town” was erroneously marketed on the International circuit as “Night of the Creeps 2”… but it isn’t. You’re better off tracking down a decent version of this undersold original and having a blast with it.

From Beyond

(Directed by Stuart Gordon)

You could never blame Gordon for returning to the works of H.P. Lovecraft, after the storming (if controversial) reaction that the great “Re-Animator” got. Whilst this spiritual follow-up has just as much guts and gusto as that film, it never really got the same amount of plaudits. Like his last Lovecraft production, the source material is fairly brief. But whilst that gore-fest was (very) loosely based on a short series of stories, “Beyond” actually branches out from a tale that only consists of 7 pages. It takes the core concept of meddling scientists (again), but fuses it with the notion of otherworldly creatures and even some IRL biology. Also like “Re-Animator”, it has pretty zilch to do with the writer’s Cthulhu Mythos or Elder Gods, and instead circles around the weird dimensions that he would refer to in other stories like “The Dreams in the Witch House”. Gordon stuck with the effective top billings of Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton (maintaining a trusted company of actors who he knew he could work with on extreme content), and added Ken Foree (so good as the hero in the original “Dawn of the Dead”), along with accomplished character actor Ted Sorel. The minimal plot was fleshed out by Gordon, along with his regular collaborators Dennis Paoli and Brian Yuzna. Gordon was lucky enough to be able to pull off higher production values due to the fact that the movie was shot in Italy, mostly on soundstage that was once owned by Dino DeLaurentiis, but had been seized by the government for tax avoidance and sold for a song to Empire Studios. It allowed more money for the plentiful FX, which were worked on by four separate teams (although Gordon still apparently bust the budget). He also shot the enjoyable “Dolls” there at the same time. The plot sees Crawford Tillinghast (Combs playing a semi-heroic character for a change) working with the immensely hissable Dr Edward Pretorius (Sorel playing a character named after a figure from “Frankenstein”). Pretorius has constructed a “Resonator”, which stimulates the human Pineal gland (causing many horror fans to rush to their human biology books at the time). This enables the pair to “sense” another dimension, which is unfortunately full of gruesome creatures… and they can suddenly sense the scientists. Pretorius is attacked and eaten by one, with Crawford taking the blame after he destroys the machine. But Dr Katherine McMichaels (Crampton) believes his story and helps him rebuild the machine to clear his name. Bad idea.

Dubious physiology and plot mechanics aside (the narrative has to keep reaching for explanations for the Resonator to power up again); this is a grisly treat full of gooey practical effects and gory details. Despite the fact that Crawford develops a taste for human brains (which he sucks out through a victim’s eye socket!!) and attacks Katherine, it’s mostly an unusually sympathetic role for Combs, and he does well with it. As does Crampton, who expands her role beyond a simple damsel-in-distress stereotype. Although the plot detail that stimulation of the pineal gland also encourages sexual fetishes, hence Katherine’s stint in some BDSM wardrobe… can’t help but feel overly gratuitous. (NB: Crampton allegedly sold the dominatrix gear at a yard sale). Mostly it’s about the fluid-dripping transformations and scenes of impressive practical monsters. The reappearance of a mutated Pretorius, merged with a Thing-like monster is especially cool. A chunky blob with multiple appendages combined with a melty-faced human on a stretchy neck. And it’s here that Sorel seems to be having a ball with his role. Just watch his expressions as he wraps his tongue around juicy lines like “Humans are such easy prey” and drawls “Let… it… happen… Crawford”. Sublime scenery (and character) chewing. There are also giant man-eating worms and flesh-eating insects to look forward to, as well as some climatic “rebirths” and wavy pineal glands erupting from foreheads. It’s really a simple cause-and-effect plot, but the cast and the umpteen gross moments make it a stand-out for the decade, even if it never really earned the same fervour as “Re-Animator”. Unsurprisingly, the director had the same censorship problems as that film, and perhaps to even a greater degree. Gordon relates that his original run-in with the MPAA had them saying that he had "ten times too much of everything", but he eventually appeased them with some small cuts to get an “R”. Luckily the “unrated” cut has since been released and is available readily on home-media. Something that has made it “resonate” with a whole new generation of fans.

Chopping Mall

(Directed by Brian Jim Wynorski)

Sometimes the name of a film alone can draw you in. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for instance leaves you in no doubt as to what's in store and 'Attack of the Killer Tomatoes' is just so nuts in it's conception that you want to know more. We're also big fans of punny wordplay titles too (most of our readers won't be surprised about this to be honest). 'Sharknado' is cool, 'Santa's Slay' works – but you know which one we love more than any other? 'Chopping Mall'. It's so good that you wonder if the film title was concocted before any actual plot or premise was figured out. To be fair, Jim Wynorski's film is set in a shopping mall and most importantly, does involve people being 'chopped' down. In truth, the film was originally released as 'Killbots' but due to poor ticket sales, they decided to rename it 'Chopping Mall'. Perhaps one of the best decisions made, ever.

Park Plaza Mall has just installed some state of the art security. Surveillance cameras? Nah they're old hat. A tubby old bloke to patrol the premises every hour? Pfff, come on. No, they've gone for the logical choice of installing shutters that close all exits off as well as three hi-tech robots that are designed to apprehend thieves with tranquiliser guns and tasers. What could go wrong huh? Well, I'll tell you what – four horny teenagers who decide to stay after hours so they can do the usual teenage thing of drinking lots, engaging in cringeworthy verbal exchanges and have casual sex. But they're not thieving or doing anything really bad are they? The robots aren't going to be bothered by a bunch of pesky teens? Wrong again! An electrical storm strikes the mall and damages the computer system controlling the bots. Within a few minutes they have offed the janitor and a couple of technicians – and then they begin their routine patrol of the mall. Suffice to say things get a little bit messy!

It's basically Short Circuit gone wrong – and it makes for a heck of an enjoyable movie. It's got everything you would ever want and expect from a genre B-movie. Low production values? Check! Dodgy practical effects? Check! Over the top action and logic defying premise? Check! The film is slathered in so much cheese it's unreal – but that's what is so endearing about it. Admittedly, we're coming off the back of just finishing Stranger Things series 3 (Which also happens to be set in 1986) so anything set in a mall is going to have instant appeal but there's something about the suburban setting that just connects with people. The opening credit sequence of food courts and arcade games will bring back a sense of nostalgia to many.

Despite the rather uneven central performances the main group are actually quite a likeable, fun group in an absurd kind of way. It certainly makes the scenes where they are running away from/trying to outwit/getting blown up by the robots that bit more meaningful and interesting. Dick Miller also gives a fun turn as the vexed janitor. But the real showstealers are the robots. Yes we know they look a bit shit and they look like some kind of kid's school project or something but they just add to the charm as far as we're concerned. There's no way you can watch the scene with the silhouette of one of them skating along carrying a severed human head – and not chuckle. Chopping Mall may seem like a sci-fi movie at times but it's just a slasher movie at it's core. A group of sleazy teens get stalked and killed by a menacing antagonist in an isolated/cut-off location. Except instead of a cabin in the woods and a masked madman, it's a shopping complex and some killer robots. Yes it's utterly preposterous and over the top but it never fails to entertain. And sometimes that's all you're really looking for.

Fun fact: Was originally written to be filmed at the Beverly Central Shopping Centre, but they charged too much money, so the film was shot mostly at Sherman Oaks Galleria (where Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Commando had been filmed).

House

(Directed by Steve Miner)

One of the reasons that 80's genre movies hold such a special place in the hearts of horror fans is because for a large chunk of us, this was the stuff we watched growing up and ultimately, what scared us into falling in love with the genre in the first place. Everyone has a little selection of movies that left their mark on them as a kid – but quite often the memories of these titles are a little fonder than they deserve. However sometimes these films stand the test of time and are still just as effective (albeit usually in a slightly different way) when rewatched as a grown up. One of the films from this era that left an indelible mark on some viewers (ourselves included) was Steve Miner's 'House' – a wacky, weird, thrilling but quite often funny haunted house movie with a difference. I watched it for the first time in the early 90's and upon a rewatch, it's just as bat-shit crazy and enjoyable as it was when I was an impressionable kid.

The film tells the story of a frustrated writer (so many horror films about frustrated writers aren't there?!) called Roger Cobb who moves into his recently deceased aunts house after her tragic suicide. Although he wants to sell the place (it's obviously as creepy as hell) he is convinced to use it as somewhere to churn out his next book. Thing is, Roger has been through the wringer recently. Not only has his aunt killed herself and he's getting it in the neck from his publisher, he has recently separated from his wife. Oh and his young son Jimmy has also disappeared without trace. That's enough to test anyone. What you don't need is for your new pad to be haunted, eh? Yeah, well, that's exactly what the deal is. Not long after he moves in he begins to suffer horrid graphic nightmares - some of them about a comrade that died in Vietnam. It's not long however until things start happening in the waking hours too. Is he losing his mind or is there something else – something much more sinister – going on?

Well, yes, is the answer. There's a whole load of weird shit going on and it ain't in his head (or is it...) Fat old monster hags, levitating garden tools, gremlins, demonic children, skeletal ear veterans – this film has the lot. The special effects are pretty decent here too (it took the 17 man FX team over three and a half months to build all these villains) and are really the main reason that the film has achieved something of a cult status over the years. Younger viewers may be repulsed and slightly terrified – but anyone over the age of about 12 is just going to have a blast with it all. It's as close to family-friendly horror as you're likely to get.

The other reason that 'House 'works so well is the madcap tone of the movie. After making several horror movies (including Friday 13th Part Two), this is considered something of a transitional film for Steve Miner – one where he was able to retain all the horror elements that he was best known for and inject some comedy into proceedings. It'd seem logical enough to read the premise of 'House' and expect a gruelling, heavy psychological horror. But it's not really like that at all. Moments of levity are provided by his Ned Flanders lite neighbour who always seems to appear at the most inappropriate times and there's just a sense of playfulness to the film that means that you never really taking everything completely seriously. For those after a straight up horror, you'll be a bit disappointed. But for those who don't mind a bit of cooky comedy added into the mix, you'll love it.

Add to all that an energetic central performance from William Katt as the haunted author and a great script from Fred Dekker (Monster Squad) and you've got yourself an 80's classic.

Fun fact: The war demon was an elaborate puppet measuring 18 feet. It was operated by 15 people.

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