FIVE FILMS FROM...1975
(Directed by Dario Argento)
When we personally choose our 5-films from each year, we often tend to keep away from the more obvious “big-hitters” or well-known major cult movies from each 52 weeks. But in this case we’re still drawn to highlighting one of the more noticeable global releases of 1975. Arguably one of Argento’s best and most accessible Giallo offerings, it also works as a good introduction to Italiano Grand Guignol and effectively exists as a great standalone piece to his “Animal Trilogy” and the “3 Mothers” films. It is also known by a bewildering number of alterative titles around the world. As well as the literal translation of “Profondo Rosso”, the censored US version was known as “The Hatchet Murders”, Japan re-released it as “Suspiria 2”, the French originally called it "Les Frissons de l'angoisse" ("The Shivers of Angst"), and Germany went with "Rosso - Die Farbe des Todes" ("Red - The Colour of Death"). In terms of calendar releases, “Red” came after “Four Flies on Grey Velvet” and just before “Suspiria”, and marks a definite transitional benchmark for the director/screenwriter. David Hemmings plays a Rome-based musician who witnesses the bloody murder of a neighbour from the deserted street below her apartment. He becomes drawn to investigate the crime when some seemingly minor details from the murder scene play on his mind…
Like all of Argento’s (good) films, the narrative flips between obsessive protagonists searching for the truth, whilst those around them are gruesomely despatched in a highly elaborate fashion, accompanied by a disturbingly frantic prog-rock soundtrack. Amongst all this we get superfluous sub-plots involving a psychic mind-reader, a disturbed childhood (complete with an incessant creepy child’s “La-La-La” song), and a “haunted” mansion. And of course we also get a hideous clockwork puppet, a victim having their teeth graphically dashed out on a table, the trademark death-by-window, and a decapitation by jewellery… with plenty of other noteworthy visual flourishes by the auteur. The director’s output might have become questionable in later years, but this genuinely works like a charm. The graphic murders balance out with Hemming’s appealing hero and his love/hate relationship with the reporter (played by Daria Nicolodi), along with a narrative that plays out like a mainstream detective story. There’s also the genius central McGuffin that means (*slight spoiler*) the killer’s identity is subliminally revealed to the audience during the opening murder… but you just don’t realise the fact until Hemming’s character also draws the same conclusion! Add the terrific music and themes from “Goblin”, Argento’s gloved hands actually “committing” the murders in shot, and scenes that went on to inspire later sequences in “Scanners” and “Halloween II” (1981)… and you’ve got just about perfect 70s Euro-Horror.
Race With The Devil
(Directed by Jack Starrett)
Given that this film was released in US theatres merely a week after “Jaws” was released in June ’75, you certainly wouldn’t expect it dominate the genre box-office. Nevertheless, like a lot of films that crop up in this blog, it’s earned a cult medal-of-honour from repeated late-night showings on US and UK TV. If Spielberg’s “Duel” was a road movie crossed with a slasher flick, then RWTD is pretty much “Easy Rider” mangled up with “The Devil Rides Out”. It’s a generic actioner with an unusual twist of the genre, which led it to eventually stand out from other Grindhouse efforts. It was directed by seasoned filmmaker/actor Starrett, who was previously responsible for Blaxploitation classics “Cleopatra Jones” and “Slaughter”, as well as going on to direct episodes of “Knight Rider” and “The A Team”. (NB: Fun Fact – He also played the gibberish-talking Gabby Johnson in Mel Brooks “Blazing Saddles”). The plots itself is pure car-chase/backwoods-horror stuff, as two suburban couples drive an RV across Texas and accidentally witness a Satanic ritual… as you do in central Texas. From that point, it’s simply paranoia and car-wrecks ahoy as they try to stay ahead of the untrustworthy locals and truck-driving Satanists.
Utterly preposterous in certain respects, and the depictions of the Devil Worshippers as cloaked nutters must have seemed dated even back then. But it’s still worth catching for a number of valid reasons. The cast is pure distilled 70s with Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, and Loretta Swit as the protagonists. The car chase sequences (with multiple vehicles trying to waylay the increasingly battered RV) are technically on-point and often genuinely exciting, so much so that the footage was often openly pilfered by TV action shows such as “The Fall Guy” during later years. Admittedly the genre content is relatively low, in comparison with the straightforward action scenes, but it does add an extra frisson of danger and unpredictability to the mix. This is especially true with the typically high levels of 70s-paranoia and apparently ALL of Texas being in cahoots with the Horned One according to the script! It also opts for a surprisingly bleak ending, which is quite atypical for a mainstream studio film at this time. In an unusual marketing move, Starrett went on record to say that he had employed real-life Satanists for some scenes. (Yeah, right!) Despite several rumours of a remake, that hasn’t happened… but the film is still said to have inspired aspects of Kevin Smith’s “Red State” and Nic Cage’s “Drive Angry”. Well worth catching, but expect 70s vehicular mayhem rather than pea-soup spitting.
Trilogy of Terror
(Directed by Dan Curtis)
Let’s immediately acknowledge the major Elephant-in-the-room here. Despite this TV movie being a “Trilogy” of stories that act as a showcase for the talented Karen Black, it really cemented itself into most genre fan psyches for the third story alone. Yeah, you know what we mean. Zuni Doll! Right? The production originally aired on America TV as an “ABC Movie of the Week”. Black was a high-profile actress at the time, but allegedly resisted signing on for it until her then-husband, Robert Burton, played the male lead in the first story. Although she has a packed filmography filled with many genres, her services to horror were especially noticeable, which led to later roles in millennial cult films such as “House of 1000 Corpses” and “Some Guy who Kills People”. This TV movie was designed as a showcase for her, with each story circling around 1-2 female characters, and Black playing the lead. Each segment is separate, and has no linking narrative (apart from Black playing different characters of course). The tales originate from macabre short stories penned by Richard Matheson (note how many times his name crops up on this Blog in the 70s?). So we have; an assuming teacher become the target for sexual obsession by a student (“Julie”), an unhinged relationship between two sisters (“Millicent and Therese”), and THAT fanged fetish doll playing havoc with ankles (“Amelia”).
All critiques (now and then) tend to harp on about how good that “Killer Doll” segment is, and it is pretty ground-breaking. Although the SFX mainly consist of scampering POV shots, or the film-crew waving the doll at Black from the edge of the shot… it damned well works! Black plays a great and resourceful Final Girl, and whilst the FX are limited (it WAS a 70s TV film after all), the doll is creepy enough and filmed in such a way to imply ferocity and agile movement. Arguably we wouldn’t have had Chucky and Annabelle these days if it wasn’t for this little guy. There’s also a great final shot (which we won’t spoil) which is immensely creepy, and apparently a suggestion from Black herself. With all the love for the “Amelia” segment, it’s easy to ignore the other stories, but they’re still a cut above the usual Movie-of-the-week fodder of the time. “Julie” in particular is somewhat bold with its switcheroo plot and date-rape subject. Black also holds the attention in all of the sections, and plays different types of character traits with a seamless skill. With the actress sadly passing away in 2013, this cult offering remains a long-standing legacy for her. Director Curtis is also obviously known for his “Dark Shadows” series, and the previously-mentioned “The Night Stalker”. There was also a “Trilogy of Terror II” in 1996, with UK actress Lysette Anthony taking over the lead duties. But nothing surpassed the original’s impact…
Picnic at Hanging Rock
(Directed by Peter Weird)
Australian film-maker Peter Weir has had a varied directing career. He's made some great films (Witness and The Truman Show being prime examples) but he's only ever ventured into horror a couple of times. The first of these was for the oddball vehicular horror The Cars that Ate Paris (1975), which isn't great if we're being completely honest. However, a year after this he churned out a completely different horror movie, both in terms of style and quality. That film was Picnic at Hanging Rock. The film was a critical and commercial success at the time, making ten times it's outlay at the box office. It was also adapted into a mini-series last year starring Natalie Dormer.
Adapted from a 1967 novel of the same name (Written by Joan Lindsay), the film is set in 1900 and tells the story of a group of private school students who, accompanies by one of their teachers, head out for a picnic at a local geological formation known as 'Hanging Rock'. After lunch, several of the group, almost in a trance, wander off into the wilderness. Despite looking for them, the remaining schoolgirls are forced to go back to town and report the incident. As the search for the missing girls intensifies, it begins to take a toll on the local community.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is not an out and out horror, that's worth saying first and foremost. However, the disturbing nature of the narrative and the haunting style that Weir plumps for make this a real treat for fans of enigmatic mystery movies. The plot itself is relatively straightforward but Weir's propensity for odd imagery (repeatedly focusing on swans and ants and flowers etc) and the otherworldly score make for an enthralling and unsettling viewing experience. The lack of a definitive conclusion to the story only adds to the sense of unease too. There are a number of themes that are explored throughout the story (repressed sexuality being one of these, however it's the ethereal and dream like style that most will remember it for. The film opens with a famous Poe line - 'What we see and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream' – and that line perfectly encapsulates the feel of Hanging Rock. It's one of those films that lingers in the mind long after you've seen it.
Fun Fact: Cinematographer Russell Boyd reportedly enhanced the film's diffuse and ethereal look with the simple technique of placing a piece of bridal veil over the camera lens.